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 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!

Thursday, May 18, 2017

"Once two strangers climbed old rocky top looking for a moonshine still." For most of my life, I've just thought that was a catchy lyric in the Tennessee Volunteer fight song, it wasn't until more recently that I discovered Rocky Top is a real place. The song was inspired and I quote "by a beautiful spot just outside of Gatlinburg, Tennessee." I'm not sure if people were tougher then but "just outside" Gatlinburg is a stretch, about 14 miles worth to be exact.
I didn't have the nerve to tell Amy her shoes didn't match. She's at that age where those kind of things can be devastating to her. I never thought I would see parking so easy to find in Cade's Cove but tornado threats will do that.
The early stages of the trail are pleasant as you can see by Amy's smile.
The famous Smoky Mountain single rail bridges.
Many people refer to these bridges as scary. I just like the photo ops they present.

Fresh off my conquest of Mt. Guyot with John my confidence was at an all time high. With Jesus unavailable to hike on my next off day, I resorted to recruiting my arch nemesis Amy to fill that void and told her that we would be hiking to dear old Rocky Top. I can't remember how it came to be now, but not only did she agree to go, but she volunteered to drive. I even included her on my normal routine of Smokies hiking by having some Dunkin Donuts coffee and a stop at Yoders Country Market for sandwiches for our packs. I was already hungry by the time we got to Yoders so I ate my sandwich on the porch and bought a second one for later. I'm confident in telling you this now, pimento cheese sandwiches and coffee do not digest well, especially when you are climbing a mountain, but more on that later.
Up we go. Climbing begins just a little over a mile into the hike and never really stops.
Colorful plant life along the trail.
A beautiful patch of trilliums on Anthony's Creek.
The trail becomes a stream.

The ride down was peaceful and I settled into telling stories of our youth and how we hated each other, while Amy fumed over slow drivers in front of us. I bet some folks could tell you how many leaves are on certain trees approaching Cades Cove. The weather was not very pleasant, in fact, the afternoon forecast called for possible tornadoes, and a light drizzle was falling when we reached the Cades Cove picnic area. The hike began at the Anthony Creek Trail head and not surprisingly, we had it to ourselves. I really hated to start the hike in my rain jacket but I didn't want to be soaked all day either so I slipped my pack cover on and begrudgingly strapped it on over the coat. I struck off up the trail while Amy finished some last minute packing at the car.
I think this was the only blue sky I got to see all day.
Once we reached Bote Mountain the climbing didn't stop.
The  moss along the trail was photogenic.

The trail begins as an old road and is wide as it follows Anthony Creek upstream. You cross several bridges but nothing incredibly noteworthy exists in the early portions of the hike. The elevation is tame as well just barely climbing for well over the first few miles. Just before the Russell Field trail intersection we entered some impressive wildflower area with the trail being lined with trillium. I stopped to take pictures and it was sometime during the bending and standing repetitions that I noticed my stomach was going to explode within a few minutes as all my pressure gauges were on high alert. I excused myself from the trail and became one with nature, a process I would repeat on several more occasions throughout the day. When I caught up with Amy I told her I didn't know what was up with my stomach but I was struggling. The sneaky grin on her face made me doubt her concern as well.
The Appalachian Trail at Spence Field.
Very muddy and slick hiking on this stretch.
Views of stormy skies from Spence Field.
And we were still a long way from Rocky Top!

Not only was my stomach in agony, my legs soon joined as the trail turned rocky and steep. The occasional switchback helped but we were climbing higher in a hurry. The rain had subsided and I was able to stash my coat to keep cool for the climb to meet Bote Mountain Trail. I'm not going to spend a great amount of detail on this section but what I remember it was steep, muddy, and a few sections of the trail were actually a small stream. When we reached Bote Mountain I was tired but excited to know we would soon be at the Appalachian Trail and could have a break at the Spence Field Shelter. Bote Mountain turned out to be slightly more difficult than Anthony Creek with the trail climbing relentlessly until it met the Appalachian Trail. The sound of partying resonated from the shelter and Amy and I decided to keep moving toward Rocky Top.
A large storm approaching as we began the climb up to Rocky Top.
Still more and more climbing.
Zoomed shot of Shuckstack Tower.

The good news was that the trail was now somewhat level even though it was a thick soup of mud. The skies were ominous with clouds blowing in over Fontana Lake but I was happy to be having some views and stopped along several of the clearings on Spence Field to rest and take photos. I knew our easy stretch of trail would be short lived because on the horizon was Thunderhead Mountain and near it's summit I could see the boulders that bear the name, Rocky Top. Even more cruel than the climb ahead was the valley that separated Spence Field from our destination meaning we would be losing elevation before the last stretch of climbing. The thoughts of lunch was a powerful motivating factor and Amy sprung to life taking a sizable lead on the climb up. I joined her a few minutes later on Rocky Top taking in the view while the winds continued to pick up. Not only were the winds strong but they were cold, so I retreated to the back side of the ridge to dig out my coat and small emergency blanket to cover my legs while I fished out my sandwich. Amy joined me and we both made quick work of our meals. The weather was deteriorating at an alarming rate by this point so we packed up for the hike out. Back on Rocky Top, I paused for some photos and video while Amy continued on afraid of being taken out in the imminent lightning strike.
It's rocky and we were on top, it must be ROCKY TOP!
Amy victorious on Rocky Top.
Such lovely picnic weather.

The views from Rocky Top are nice but hardly the best I've had in the park. The effort it takes to get there though really makes you appreciate it more. I found the clouds sweeping over the ridges to be fascinating and I could see Shuckstack Firetower on the ridge above Fontana Lake. I caught up to Amy on Spence Field and we stayed together the remainder of the hike aside from my few trips to become one with nature. We made quick work of the downhill hiking back to Cades Cove campground and took turns bathing with baby wipes before changing for the ride home.
Amy wasn't going to waste any time leaving me behind as the storm moved in closer.
Almost back to the car and the sun  makes a rare appearance. 

 I always find it hard to wrap up these blogs and especially with this one. I rarely say anything nice about or to Amy but the fact that she hikes far less than me and was able to handle a hike as difficult as Rocky Top should be commended. Now that I'm thoroughly disgusted with myself, I'll leave you with this, happy trails!