Thursday, June 11, 2015

Last year I helped put together some group fundraising hikes for JDRF. Each person could donate five dollars and join us on one of two trips we had selected through some facebook polling. Our inaugural hike took us to the Ewing Trail and the Sand Cave and White Rocks overlook, a moderate (remind me about that later) nine mile round trip hike to two of the best hiking destinations in Southwest Virginia.
Name badges and directions are a must for a group as big as ours.
Clowning around before departing for Ewing with Steve and Carmen.
Approaching the trail head and White Rocks looming over us.

I couldn't believe how fast a year had passed when people began to ask me about this year's JDRF hiking plans. I hadn't put much thought into it being so consumed with my own plans to try to reach 500 miles and spending every minute of free time in the woods. With only two weeks left to collect funds, I hurriedly put together a post to see if there was enough interest to get a group together to try to do something similar to last year. Surprisingly, an overwhelming response is what I received and after naming a few options including the wildly popular Devil's Bathtub, the Sand Cave once again beat out all other options. I created a separate event link and inquires continued to pour in, this was going to be a huge group! I wrote the description and requirements for the hike and in my mind I was being honest when I labeled the hike as a moderate trip with a gradual uphill climb. I noted that all hikers would need plenty of water and food as we would be spending the majority of the day on the mountain and everyone should be mindful of their own physical fitness level before committing to the trip. Having my bases covered, I sat back and enjoyed the conversations that unfolded through the event site on the days that led to the hike.
Dylan, Clarissa, Cody, and Janice at Thomas Walker Civic Park.
Jeff signing his life away to the mountain.
Tough climbing right away and our first rest break.
Thomas was a little excited about the hike as you can tell.
Amber, Carmen, and Courtney enjoying the benches.

As our group filled out I could tell there were going to be a lot of laughs along the hike and I continued to watch the "maybe' commits with my fingers crossed that Barry Cole would find a way up from Chattanooga, Tennessee to join us. Barry and I met through the Waterfalls of Tennessee Facebook page and his quick wit and humor made it easy to become friends. I finally got to meet Barry in person last year on a camping trip when he came in to see some Northeast Tennessee waterfalls, and it turns out his Internet persona is exactly how he is in real life. Low flow waterfalls, bears, bees, and the missing tooth were highlights of the trip but the laughter around the campfire had to be my favorite of the experience. It took some serious negotiations but after offering free shelter and beer, Barry committed to the Sand Cave hike.
Amber loving her new camera!
Barry, Shane, and Thomas: Trail comedians.
John (Jesus) Shane and I with Badger pulling the photo bomb.
Nice rest rock in a switch back. Me, Becky, John, Amber, Shane, and Carmen taking advantage of a break.

Meanwhile Jeff Forrester was selling the hike to his coworkers in Weber City Virginia and assembled a group of four to join him on Sunday morning. Late Saturday night, Barry arrived at our house and quickly made himself at home having a beer and watching the last few minutes of an NBA playoff game. I told him about what a fun hike it was going to be while Amber told of how she almost died the first time she hiked there as she finished packing her bag for the next day. Steve and Carmen had suffered most of the week from a stomach virus but a text late Saturday night confirmed they too would hike. Shane never misses a chance for some miles and his personality makes him a must when group hiking, he was the first person to agree to go.
Prayers for safe travels. Pictured are Thomas, John, and Barry.
Amber, Shane, Janice, Thomas, Becky, Barry, Steve, Carmen, Dylan, Jeff, and Clarissa from left to right.
Amber shooting a close up of a wildflower.
Spur trail to White Rocks.
Here comes Jeff!
Barry relaxing at the ridge line.
Shane and Courtney on top of White Rocks.
The majority of the group arrives at White Rocks.

Rounding up Thomas Mabry is quite the challenge these days. Since his fame as the honey badger has grown booking him for a trip is nearly impossible but even he didn't want to miss the opportunity to see one of Virgina's finest hiking destinations, his reply was simple, "Badger in." Arriving a little late to the party was Becky Mixson, also of Chattanooga, Tennessee. She had messaged saying her and a few friends would be driving up Sunday morning to meet us as well! Needing some religious guidance for the trip I invited my friend, Jesus aka John Lane. John is an avid outdoorsman and said he would see me bright and early on Sunday morning.
Amber stretches for the best angle as I sit below in one of the saddle rocks.
Badger and I at the edge of the earth on White Rocks.
Steve and Jeff looking at the drop below.
Thomas in his element.
Clarissa and Cody, on top of the world.

Sunday morning arrived and I grabbed my phone off the charger to see that several people had backed out of the trip for a variety of reasons. I wasn't extremely surprised since nine miles can be a little intimidating especially if you don't hike a lot. We gathered our packs and set off to meet everyone at Weber City before departing to the trail head 60 miles away. I was the first to arrive and ran in the store to purchase a few more snacks for the day and seen Jeff and the Weber City crew come in the front mixing a mingling with everyone before scattering also looking for snacks. Back in the parking lot, Becky had arrived from Chattanooga without her friends who had bailed on her and I tried to make her feel welcome to our group of growing rowdy hikers. Shane arrived and soon behind him John Lane. Steve and Carmen showed up along with Carmen's cousin Courtney and her friend Samantha. Thomas came scooting in next fresh off a Linville Gorge hike the day before, and unfolded from his Corolla a little gingerly. I ran from person to person trying to make sure everyone was welcome and ready for the day ahead, dispensing name badges to keep track of them all. The Weber City crew of Janice, Clarissa, Cody, and Dylan hung tightly together but I still took the time to talk to each of them before departing. I had followed them through social media for a while and enjoyed seeing them get out and take a few hikes before our trip. Sharon Honaker and her friend Marlene were joining us as well but had decided to meet us at the trail head instead of Weber City. Deciding everyone that was going to show up was present, I passed out written directions to everyone that was driving in case we were separated on the way there. Everyone piled into cars and we were off to the Sand Cave.
The Hortons at White Rocks.
Courtney filming a hair care commercial.
John, Steve, and I in the tub rock.
Everyone piling in the tub rock for a group shot.
It was hard being normal that long.
gopro style at White Rocks.
Amber practicing hand stands.
Gopro at the edge of White Rocks with my crew.

Thomas and Jeff rode with Amber and I and I laughed the entire way from the Badger's many stories he had accumulated since our last gathering. Sharon called to say she had arrived at the trail head and was going to hike on ahead of us afraid that she couldn't keep up with the group. Pulling in to Thomas Walker Civic Park I wasn't surprised to see several other cars since the weather was so perfect. All the girls took bathroom breaks before we vanished onto the trail and up the mountain. The beginning of the hike is fairly easy as it winds back and forth as it approaches the trail registry and the real climbing. I was interested to see where the pace would be and hung in the back as everyone got their legs loose from the hour ride to the trail head. Our pack held tight and conversation buzzed as everyone started getting to know one another. I hiked with Sam for a while and although she was already breathing heavy she assured me by saying, "I'm fine, I love this stuff." The Weber City four was a barrel of laughs as they fell to the back but kept positive and pushing as we climbed up reaching the trail sign in. I warned everyone of the tough stretch ahead but promised we would stop at some nice rocks to rest at the first switchback up the mountain. Carmen set a fast pace up the steep creek bed but stopped well before the rest rocks and when I told her we hadn't made it to where I was talking about she said, "this is a rest rock, it's a rock and I'm resting." Both her and Steve were hanging tough despite feeling bad from lingering side effects of their stomach ailments. Carmen's cousin Courtney was absolutely blazing the trail. She led most of the way eventually leaving our sight completely. The fact that she was even there was somewhat of a surprise considering she had buried her father a few days earlier after a lengthy battle with cancer. I couldnt' help but wonder what was going through her head as she marched upward. Thomas strolled along with Barry, Becky, John, and Shane holding court with his Badgerism's and arsenal of humor. I tried to mix up who I hiked with but it was hard not to stray out of ear shot of the comedy gold being laid down by their group. Jeff has hiked with me many times and although he isn't the fastest he may be the most tenacious of anyone I've hiked with. He never gives up or never stops, he served a greater purpose as we continued to burn trail behind us by falling back to his coworkers and helping push them up the mountain. Maybe most impressive of all was Amber's efforts as we climbed higher with views of Ewing, Virginia beginning to unfold through the trees along the trail. She carried a heavy pack loaded with extra water and food in case someone ran out along the way but she remained in good spirits and easily stayed with the lead pack.
Barry's reward for a long drive.
This little step is a tough one.
Amber crossing the step. Her facial expression isn't faked for the camera.
I think Becky was glad she drove up as well!
Amber happy the climbing is over with.
Steve in one of the more stunning images from the trip.

When we arrived at a large rock in another of the switchbacks we took an extended break and let all our hiking crew catch up and rest for a few minutes. I noticed we were missing Courtney and Sam who had extended their lead and I grew concerned they would keep hiking and miss the spur trail route to White Rocks I had planned on taking. John Lane volunteered to run ahead to catch them and stop them before they could pass it, I've heard of a come to Jesus meeting but never a Jesus comes to you meeting. With John vanishing up the trail it occurred to me that we still hadn't seen Sharon or Marlene nor passed them coming back, they were somewhere ahead of us still and I assumed we would catch them near White Rocks. When the main pack of our hikers arrived at the .8 mile spur up to White Rocks we found John, Courtney, and Sam anxiously waiting and I told everyone that this was the last really hard stretch of climbing. We all caught our breath once again for a push up to the top and I found I was lucky enough to hike with Barry. Sometime during our labored breathing he found the strength to bust into song, nailing a cover of Bill Monroe's In The Pines. He also thanked me for such an accurate trail description on the event link, I sensed some sarcasm in his voice as I decided I should hike out the reach of his hiking poles. I pushed on to the ridge line where some of the group was waiting including Janice. I watched closely for Barry to appear as well but I seen a hiker approaching I didn't recognize. As the person hiked closer I could tell it was a park ranger, he told me that he had a noise complaint on my group but wasn't convincing me, so I said, "So what, now give me five dollars." He looked confused and I told him I was kidding and then explained to him what we were doing and where the money we were collecting was going to. He eagerly reached for his wallet and said that we were doing something worthwhile, handing over five more dollars to our donation total.
Balanced boulders on the way to the sheer cliff.
Me on the cliff's edge.
Carmen unaffected by the heights.
That is crazy high!
Lets see what the gopro shot looks like.
I couldn't have done this a year ago.

Everyone seemed so excited to be on the ridge and heading toward what we had worked so hard for. I could already see Shane, Courtney, and Sam on top of White Rocks high above me as I approached. The final climb between the backside of the rock cliffs is a really fun scramble and John and Amber were both busy taking pictures as I trudged by to reach the open views of White Rocks. The views were fantastic with barely any haze at all. Everyone scattered taking pictures of the scenery and selfies to prove they were there. Badger and I were quick to scramble over for some edge of the Earth pictures with Barry, Steve, and Jeff all taking turns out on the cliffs as well. I made my way back from the edge and over to a tub shaped rock along the edge with John Lane. He offered me a celebratory chug from his flask and we basked in our accomplishment so far. I invited several other people into the rock formation with me and we took turns taking pictures and using my gopro. I told everyone about a sheer cliff further out the ridge that is one of my favorite parts so we all packed up and headed that way. Along the edge of the cliffs you encounter a really tricky climb up onto a larger set of rocks and it was awesome to see everyone help each other over the obstacle. When we reached the cliff we all took pictures in various positions trying to best depict the huge drop below. Shane doesn't like heights but I somehow managed to coax him out to the edge for a picture with Thomas and I. As I tried to get him closer to the edge, I touched him on the arm and in a tone I've never heard come out of him before he said, "don't touch me, I'll throw you off." Everyone laughed, except me.
Courtney on the edge.
Amber and I on the brink of the cliffs.
The Flat Creek reunion on the edge of the earth.
Samantha taking in the view.
What a great group of friends!
The ladies turn for a group photo.
Carmen and I on the very edge of the cliff.
Believe it or not, I've been in worse places with the Badger.

Barry, as I've mentioned before, has a good sense of humor. He started telling his new hiking friends about the birth of a tradition from our hiking trip. While photographing a waterfall his pants fell below his waistline a little too far revealing a full moon. The subsequent picture was a facebook sensation and we encouraged him to recreate the moment on the edge of the cliffs. Barry happily obliged to roars of laughter and even struck a Costanza pose made famous by the TV show Seinfeld. Sadly, the tradition died once he arrived back home late that evening when many of his pictures had been tagged to show up on his wife's facebook page. I don't blame her for being upset, the images from that day will be permanently burned into my memory.
Barry being Barry. I won't post my view of this photo.
Climbing down from the cliff edge and heading back to White Rocks.

Barry's incredible shot from White Rocks.
On to the Sand Cave!

When we began the day, I was most concerned about Becky having a good time since she didn't really know anyone and had drove all the way from Chattanooga but there she was grinning from ear to ear with her feet dangling off of a several hundred foot drop. As fun as the cliffs were we still had the cave to see and try to somehow find two missing members of our party that I had no clue what they looked like in person. The march to Sand Cave is really easy after all the grueling...I mean gradual...climbing up the mountain. Barry, Shane, Thomas, and I once again found ourselves hiking together and caught up to Courtney. Hiking downhill was a welcome change and as we closed in on the Sand Cave the landscape started changing drastically. Laurel began to pop up everywhere and a small stream came to life as we criss-crossed it several times as we continued to move downhill. We reached the spur trail to the sand cave and I was happy to find the trail lined with some spectacular Trilliums. Amber had took pictures all day with her new camera but it was an awesome site to see her lying on the ground trying to get the best possible shot. Even Old Man Winter found his way off trail to take a few pictures of the flowers as the rest of the group marched faster toward the Sand Cave. While I was waiting on Amber to take pictures, the Weber City crew of hikers caught and passed me. Clarissa and Cody both had pushed themselves beyond their limits but were joking claiming they needed a cheeseburger but were now closing in on one of the most awe inspiring sights in Virginia. I started hiking faster trying to catch up so I could catch everyone's reaction when the Sand Cave came into view. The sound of water grew louder and I knew the waterfall at the caves entrance was just a short distance away. Amber, Jeff, and I stuck together as we caught Shane, Thomas, John, and a few others at the base of the waterfall.
Arriving at the waterfall and the dunking commenced!
Thomas and Jesus being refreshed.
Thomas, Shane, John, and Steve taking a shower under the waterfall.
Clarissa, Dylan, and Janice take a dip! Look at Clarissa's face! That water was cold!

Thomas decided he needed to be hillbilly baptised for his many transgressions on the trail and asked if Jesus would join him. Shane and Steve couldn't miss the fun and all four of them stood under the chilly water as everyone else looked on. Not to be outdone, Clarissa, Dylan, and Janice all took a turn standing under the falls, the look on Clarissa's face was downright hilarious! All the play time at the falls seemed to reenergize everyone and we began the climb into the cave. I really enjoyed seeing how hard it was for people to climb the steep grade in the deep sand. Carmen had made it further than anyone and just sat down in the sand watching us all suffer to catch up. I made my way toward the middle of the cave and the back wall where there was some solid looking sand to sit on. Amber was a short distance behind as well as Jeff and Janice. Barry retreated to a far corner digging for camera equipment while Steve, Carmen, and Courtney rested down below the rest of us. Shane and Thomas were on the prowl looking for even more adventure, eyeballing a remote corner of the cave and a sketchy climb. Courtney must have had the same idea and joined them marching across the vast space of sand. Sam rested with Amber and I and Becky looked like an ant crossing the cave below us near the opening
The Sand Cave.
Cody, Janice, and Clarissa heading into the cave.
Setting up for some shots inside the cave.
Barry swallowed up by the massive cave.
Always smiling.
Look at all those happy faces.
Strange designs on the walls of the cave.

Watching Shane, Thomas, and Courtney make their climb into a well formed hole from wind erosion above the cave floor I decided to go over to take some video and pictures. The three of them celebrated the moment with a picture and then took turns sliding out of their perch as I videoed each of them. After about an hour of play time I started wrangling up the group and had them hike out the opposite side of the cave making the return trip up the mountain a little shorter. Thomas was one of the last people out of the cave as he tends to really savor the moment.
Barry's shot from inside the sand cave.
Courtney, Steve and Carmen resting in the cave.
Another shot from Barry with people circled for scale.
Shane and Courtney in the deepest part of the Sand Cave.
Thomas takes down the Sand Cave.

I knew if I could keep the group motivated enough for the climb back up to the ridge we would have it made on the all downhill hike back to the trail head. When I reached the large signs on the ridge and benches I waited for our group to all reassemble. I had never found Sharon or Marlene and now Dylan was absent as well. I was hesitant to hike down but I knew we hadn't passed him anywhere and I felt like he couldn't screw up the spur trail back to the parking lot. The beautiful thing about the hike out is the many short cuts you can take through the switchbacks. Shane and Steve found one that cut 10 minutes of hiking off of their trip as they were sitting in the trail when we caught up. Carmen decided she would take a short cut as well with Steve and Thomas following behind. The steep trail slowed them to a crawl and the rest of us hiked by laughing at them high above us. A short distance later, I noticed something on a tree that gave me some hope that Dylan was headed the right direction. I had handed out name badges at the earlier in the day to make it easy for everyone to remember names and his badge was stuck to a tree at eye level. I stuffed in my pocket and marched on feeling slightly better about his whereabouts. Amber had got a good lead on me and as she approached some rocks along the trail a black snake crossed her path. We yelled back to Steve who came running down the trail as the snake was vanishing into the rocks. Without knowing what kind it was, he grabbed it by the tail and began to pull it out. The snake knew it was in trouble and wrapped around a branch underground causing Steve to have to let it go without injury. When we passed the trail registry I felt good about our day and Jeff decided to wait on the missing hikers there so they wouldn't miss the turn back to the parking lot. Courtney made the mistake but we saw her heading down the horse road and called her back to join us. Just before reaching the trail head, Dylan magically appeared out of the woods. He gave me ten dollars saying two women had found him and gave him the money for our cause, Sharon and Marlene had made it!
A group shot before heading down.
Shortcut? yeah right!

The majority of our group arrived back in the parking area as the ladies made a line at the restrooms and Barry retreated to his jeep as a few of us sprawled out lying in the grass. Barry came back to join us with a box of squeeze applesauce. He said it was a new tradition and passed everyone a tube of sauce. I usually don't eat applesauce but being tired and hungry, it was a nice addition to a great day. I fully expected everyone to hurriedly depart but once the rest of the Weber City group finally emerged from the woods everyone settled in to story telling and recapping the day.
Barry and the applesauce.
Such a relief everyone made it.
Marlene and Sharon finally make an appearance at the end of our day!

Through our efforts that day we raised $100 for JDRF and I personally have never been more proud of a group of people. I may have missed the description a little on the difficulty scale, but everyone succeeded in making the trip. I was particularly proud of Clarissa and Cody who struggled early and often but never offered to stop or go back, their smiles in the parking area made the trip for me. Once everyone was full of hot applesauce we started saying our goodbyes. Barry and Becky had long drives back to Chattanooga and the Badger did as well to Waynesville, North Carolina. Just as I was beginning to pull away, I saw two women talking to one of our group members and recognized one of the women as Sharon. I jumped out to introduce myself expecting they might chew me out from the looks of exhaustion on their faces, but instead they thanked me for putting together such a wonderful trip. They had become separated from us hiking a few more miles than our group but still made it to White Rocks and Sand Cave. Sharon said it best explaining the difficulty, "I'm not sweating, I'm salting, I ran out of sweat a long time ago." Until next time, happy trails.

Pizza time.
til next time...

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