Monday, July 27, 2015

This year I've been focused on my goal of reaching 500 miles. I don't know if focused is even the right word, maybe obsessed with would be better but regardless, I'm not going to quit until I succeed. Not torn ligaments in my ankle in February or a broken toe in May slowed my progress. If anything, it made me more determined to keep pushing despite the pain. Through it all I'm now only five miles shy of 300 as the month of July comes to an end.

I've also found balance this year. Working as a salaried assistant manager and being married, I also have responsibilities away from the trail and my personal goals. It seems I've found a new love for life and although I stay busy, it's been worth it all. One of the highlights away from hiking this year was my first true country music concert. Amber and I traveled to Knoxville, TN to see Garth Brooks. For three glorious hours, he rocked Thompson Bowling Arena and I couldn't believe what a wonderful entertainer he was. We didn't leave the arena until almost midnight, finally made it home about 1:30am, and I calmed down enough to go to sleep around 2:30am.

As much as I wanted to sleep in the next day, I had a short hike planned with some Girl Scouts from my old elementary school in Hiltons. Growing up I made many friends at Hiltons Elementary that I've carried into adulthood. One of my friends, Eric Gardner, and I have shared a lot of adventures and bad decision making. The fact that we both are still alive is a true testament to God's grace. Eric has a family now and his wife is the Girl Scout Troop leader for the school. She had asked me a few weeks earlier if I would be interested in guiding a few of the girls on a hike so they could earn their merit badge. I've not done a lot of guided hikes but have helped out with a few fundraisers through work and was glad to give back to a school that I have such fond memories of, and to help out one of my best friend's daughters earn her merit badge!
Hiltons Elementary School Girl Scout Troop and I at the start of Little Stony National Recreation Trail.

When I arrived at the school shortly before 9am I expected five or six kids and a couple of parents. Imagine my surprise when 13 girls and six parents piled into the parking lot a few at a time. My plan was to hike from the upper parking lot at Little Stony Falls near Dungannon, Virginia and hike the girls down past the main waterfalls to a wooden bridge and back to the parking lot making a nice two mile trip with plenty to see. Eric's wife, Kate changed the plans upon my arrival saying we needed to burn more of their energy and wanted to hike them in from Hanging Rock and back making a 5.2 mile trip. I was somewhat surprised but relieved because it would make the convoy there easier as it follows paved roads the entire way. The girls seemed to have more than enough energy for the trip as they bounced from car to car trying to decide who they wanted to ride with. Once we were satisfied that everyone had shown up that was going we were off on the forty minute drive to the trail head.

When we arrived at Hanging Rock I couldn't help but think about my last visit there and how different everything appeared. In the winter, I hiked in knee deep snow with some friends. To read the story of that day visit here:( I parked in my usual spot along the creek as the rest of the caravan passed by heading toward the start of the recreation trail. Normally the gate is locked so I expected them to be back but as I hiked up the paved road I could see that I could have saved myself some steps since the gate was standing wide open. A couple of the parents and a few children had parked with me and we chatted as we hiked up to the join the others. I spotted a small salamander in the grass along the road and let the girls take turns either holding it or petting it. We all posed for a picture by the Little Stony Recreation Trail and I gave some final instructions before hitting the trail. I had already encountered poisonous snakes on hikes and cautioned the girls to stay on the trail at all times. Although I'm not a parent, I felt a little apprehension taking them up the trail since I knew what to expect.
The trail passes by this small waterfall and we the girls had to go inspect it up close.

I tried to stay in the lead but some of the older girls of the group out paced me by a few feet and I settled in to mixing with everyone as much as possible. There were still some nice wildflowers blooming and stinging nettle lined the trails causing some discomfort early on for a few scouts. The parents seemed to be happy being out as well and the principal, Tracy Stallard had came with her daughter. I went to school with Tracy and her mother was my my math teacher in fifth grade. I always liked Ms. Williams as she stood up for me and told me to be proud of being tall. If anything, the hike was a reminder that I was getting old.

Along the way, I pointed out bugs, flowers, and even some abandoned mine shafts to the girls and they seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. We all stopped for an extended at stay at one of the nice small waterfalls and even with chilly water, a majority of the girls took a dip. It was a surreal change to my usual hiking in silence as giggles and song lit up the valley but it was wonderful seeing them all have so much fun. Not all of the parents shared in their joy and it was easy to pick out the few that were more comfortable in a shopping mall. I asked one of the girls if she liked hiking and she gave me one of the more candid and hilarious answers I've received, "I didn't want to be here but I'm a girl scout, and I really want that badge."
We made it to the falls!
The water was cold. These girls are tough!

I was really impressed with Kate's poise as she instructed the girls as we navigated through some narrow stretches of trail and around some downed trees. All of them looked up to her, and I could tell she cared for them all equally even with the presence of her own daughter. Soon we were approaching the first falls which is the highest on the creek. The trail to the base is a steep muddy affair with little to hold onto. One of the parents initially objected to her daughter going but I recruited some parents to make a line to help each child down safely. It was awesome to see everyone work as a team and as soon as everyone arrived at the base, the girls were back in the water. Screams and shrills echoed along the rock walls as they adjusted to the chilly water. I found a rock to relax on but watched them all closely while they splashed around. The cold water was no match for their enthusiasm and they lingered even as the parents started calling them that we needed to head back. I talked to Kate and told her the main falls was only a short hike up the trail and I wanted to show them all how you could walk behind it. She was worried with the girls not bringing a lunch they would get grouchy and be miserable hiking back. Luckily, the girls agreed with me and we all marched on toward the Upper Falls of Little Stony. If the girls energy was fading, I couldn't tell. They beat us all to the waterfall and some of them where already making their way behind the falls when I reached the base. I joined all of them behind the waterfall and we played along the shore for a few minutes before Kate called us all back.
Lower falls of Little Stony.
My favorite picture of the day. The girls and I behind the Upper Falls of Little Stony.

The hike back was much easier since it was mostly downhill and the girls stayed in a good mood as they discussed their plans for later and what was for lunch. I hiked in the back of the group and visited with a few parents and stayed with some of the smaller scouts with their tiny strides. When we all reached the parking lot I felt a huge sense of relief. Everyone was safe and no one had any injuries at all. Kate shared snacks from her vehicle with everyone and the girls each thanked me for taking them hiking. As I made my way back to the truck, they passed by yelling "bye" and "thank you" and the smile on my face was so wide that it hurt. It was refreshing to set my personal goals aside and do something for someone else. The girls added so much to my hike by being observant and attentive even pointing out things to me by the end of the day. Hopefully they continue to enjoy the outdoors many years from now and can look back on the day "that real tall man" took them to Little Stony. Until next time, happy trails.

Monday, July 20, 2015

This summer I was given the opportunity to fill in for store managers while they took their vacations. With the new job assignment came more responsibility and a lot more window time as Ive been commuting from my home in Gray, Tennessee. The first two weeks of my substitute store manager gig took me to the town of Big Stone Gap, Virginia which is about an hour and a half drive from my house. Luckily, I still knew a few people at the store from previous trips filling in for remodels and date sweeps and it served as a reunion with one of my good friends, Josh Lawson.

Josh lived a tormented life under my guidance as his lead assistant at the St. Paul store a few years ago and I'm sure more than once, he's thought about punching me in the face. The winter months were harsh that year and he was kind enough to let me stay with him instead of risk driving the slick roads. It seems a lot of funny stories were generated from that night as well as the nearly year long stint I served in the hills of Virginia. When I left the store to be closer to home, the associates got me a card filled with various well wishes. Josh's passage still makes me smile and is true in a lot of ways, it reads, "It's hard being friends with you."
Can never be too safe.

I arrived in Big Stone Gap a week ahead of schedule and I got to work with the store manager, Paxton. There aren't many people left that don't know about my obsession with hiking and one day on lunch he offered to show me a trail that was nearby that I wasn't aware of. We jumped in my truck and drove not even a mile from the store before crossing a bridge with a large waterfall upstream. Paxton told me he had hiked there before but that it had been years ago and wasn't sure how far the trail went or what all was up the mountain. I got back to the store and started asking around and several of the employees had been hiking there with some calling the trail Laurel Branch and others calling it Roaring Branch. I found an AllTrails description that called it Roaring Branch Trail and it listed it as a seven mile round trip hike that would end near a set of rocks overlooking the valley called the High Butte Rocks. Surprisingly, it was the only info online I found of the area, making me even more interested in the hike.

I asked Josh if he wanted to join me on the trip one evening while I was working there and he agreed to go, although he looked very hesitant when I started telling him about the seven mile trip. The day of our hike was one hilarious moment after another. All day he asked me about the hike and what I thought it was going to be like, and each time I reminded him that I had never been there either. Our plan was to leave around 5pm and hit the trail but business was booming and we found ourselves still there after 6pm. I eventually snuck out to the parking lot to change and when Josh finally came out I drove over to pick him up. I asked him if he needed to change and he said no as he chucked his tie in the car and climbed in the truck. He slid on some boots and was ready to his dress pants and dress shirt. He started fumbling around on the ride over to the trail head and realized he had forgot his water. I told him not to worry that I brought extra and had brought my filter as well. The problem with the hike up Roaring Branch that you're immediately greeted with is the parking. We chose to park about two tenths of a mile back down the road at a small gravel pullout along the Powell River. Business 23 curves along the river and was surprisingly busy that afternoon. As I swung the door open to get out a car blew it's horn causing me to jump back in the truck. I decided we needed to park as close to the guardrail as possible and backed up with Josh hanging half out of the truck. When I got out I noticed a set of keys where we were parked. Josh started laughing saying he must have dropped them when we moved and that he would grab them before we left. Finally satisfied with my parking spot, I grabbed my camera, hiking stick, and cell phone. As we started down the road, I picked up Josh's keys and gave them to him to put back in the truck. He had forgot them AGAIN! I had read an article earlier in the week about the most dangerous towns in Virginia and Appalachia made the #4 spot so I left a note in my truck window that any valuables were with the seven foot tall man just up the trail. Josh called his wife telling her we were starting the hike and I glanced at my phone noting the time was 6:32pm.
The start of the steps.
Hey look, more steps!

Cars zipped by and we waited patiently for a moment to cross. We finally arrived at the actual trail and were greeted with some steep stone stairs that paralleled Roaring Branch. The stairs were steep even for me so I felt bad for Josh right away. To his credit, he stayed on my heels and carried on a good conversation as the stairs seemed to stretch on forever. My legs started burning after the hundred step mark and I was about ready to surrender after the 200th step but another ten more leveled us high above the creek and a nice waterfall. I paused for a rest and noticed Josh's face was already bright red. It's always nice to hike with new people and Josh was taking it all in. Being a father of two young boys with a little girl on the way, his free time is at an absolute premium and with him being a father, I ensured him that if he died on the hike, I would die with him. I think he believed me.
Large waterfall on Roaring Branch.
and more steps! #$@*!

Roaring Branch was impressive already. We had passed at least four waterfalls and thick bright green moss lined the trail as we continued the gradual climb. I had read the trail was home to one of the last remaining old growth forests with the giant hemlocks that remained in the state but storms and damage from the Wolly Algedid had leveled the giants and Josh and I were slowed to a crawl. When I say crawl, I mean literal crawl. I laid on my stomach sliding under some of the fallen trees thinking how terrible it would be to meet a rattlesnake. Each time we had to work through the downfall I would wait for Josh and I noticed his dress clothes got progressively dirtier. The trail didn't let up with the challenges along the way as I had to hike bent over for long stretches working through tunnels of laurel. Sometimes it would get so thick that I had to really stop and look to see where we could continue. As we climbed higher and over some tricky creek crossings. Roaring Branch began to grow smaller. We crossed some ridges and entered into some swamps with logs strung across them as makeshift bridges. I was in love with the hike, the challenge of always having to be sure of each step is intense and rewarding. Josh started fading but his spirits stayed high. I would get out of sight but would wait for him to make sight of me before entering any downfall or laurel tangles.
This was tough and there were several stretches like this.
Swamp area along the trail.

Suddenly the trail vanished. Gone as if it were never there at all. As I looked for blazes or boot prints Josh caught up and seemed to agree that the trail had ended. A large dead tree spanned a murky tributary of Roaring Branch. I balanced myself and walked it's length noticing a pocket knife stuck in it's trunk. All the rain had the small stream swollen hiding the trail on the opposite side but we were lucky enough to sniff it out. As a reward for my efforts, I stuck the pocket knife in my pocket. (I'll gladly give it back if you read this and lost it here!) I noticed Josh struggling to find his balance on the other side and tossed him my hiking stick. It was the last time I would use it for the rest of the hike. I had foolishly thought they might have been wrong with the mileage of seven miles early in the hike but as we continued to push on and under more brush I looked to see that it was 7:30pm. I knew we would have to turn around by 8pm to save daylight so I hiked as hard as I could, jogging at times to try to see anything that would give me hope. The trail had swung away from Roaring Branch but had now came back into the valley near the head waters and I noticed a finger sized hole with water gushing out giving birth to the mighty stream we had hiked beside of. It takes a lot to impress me any more but hiking the entire length of a creek was a pretty cool moment and I waited to show it to Josh when he closed in on me. He told me his legs were on fire and asked what I thought. I told him my plan to turn back by 8pm and I jogged on arriving at the top of the mountain. I ran reaching level ground and followed the ridge but it turned and started heading downhill into more laurel hells and I decided not to push our luck. I'm not used to not reaching my goal while hiking but the experience and challenge of our small time window made me appreciate how far we had come. I estimated it at over six miles falling around half a mile short of the overlook. I looked at my screenshot of the trail overlayed on Google earth and could verify we were shortly over six miles by the time we hiked back. I continued to run finding Josh bent over holding his knees on the steep grade coming to the top of the mountain and told him what I had seen. I've hiked with a lot of people this year but I haven't been more proud of anyone's efforts than Josh. He had gave everything he had in the tank and actually helped me by staying positive the entire hike. I told him we were in a race against nightfall now and we would have to stay swift to get out before dark. We found a  new gear with the downhill grade and left the upper portions of the trail in our wake. A few times we got off course in the laurel tangle before retracing our steps and finding a blaze again but for the most part we made the hike in the dark look pretty easy.
Some stayed and some sunk. One of the most fun guessing games I've been a part of.
small mushroom busting through.
Beside a downed Hemlock.
Tree branch fossil.
The look of exhaustion and elation all rolled into one.

When we reached one of the last creek crossings we both were out of water. I got out my filter and let Josh use it first. He filled his bottle and chugged it marveling at how wonderful the filter worked! I took my turn and as I bent over to use the filter, I went blind! The blood rushing to my head I got so dizzy I staggered around until I could see again. I had almost blacked out! Josh and I laughed at my crazy dance moves but it would have been hard for him to get me out if I had went down for good. My legs started wearing down with about a mile left and the sun faded completely from the sky. Darkness closed in around us and we relied on each other as spotters to negotiate the 200 stairs that lowered us to the trail head. When I stepped onto the pavement along the highway I waited on Josh to join me giving him a bear hug in celebration. Both of us were filthy and soaked with sweat but we laughed and joked as we staggered back to the truck. We decided to stop back at the store for a snack before calling it a night and we received some crazy looks when we waked in. I had blood dripping from both legs and my torso was covered in mud. Josh couldn't have been any dirtier if you had threw him in a pigpen. The next morning Josh told his version of the hike on his facebook page and I beamed with pride as I read the story. One of the things that stood out the most was his final sentence, "it's a memory I will never forget." Until next time, happy trails.
Went back the following evening to shoot the waterfall with my good camera and use the tripod.