Monday, August 7, 2017

Sugar Fingers: The Little Sisters of the Chimney Tops (Part 2 of 4)

Viewing the Smokies’ newest topographic addition – the Sugar Fingers -- is very, very easy. The several scenic, parking pullouts on the road between the Chimney Tops Picnic Area and the Chimney Tops trailhead are directly across the valley from these newly-exposed ridges. Before December, 2016, looking south across this valley was pleasant enough. You’d see the slopes of Sugarland Mountain, green and a bit lumpy in a few places. Steep in some spots and gently sloping in others. Nothing special.

As the fire jumped across the face of Sugarland Mountain, blowing toward Gatlinburg, it torched several rocky, side ridges running along the slope of the main ridgecrest, like ribs attached to a spine. The change was dramatic. Before, these ridges looked like gentle, green, elongated humps running up the side of Sugarland Mountain. They were barely noticeable. In fact, my only off-trail trip up Sugarland Mountain a few years ago had focused on the ravines and cliffs between these ridges. The ridges were just those green, tree-covered things on either side of us as we worked our way up the steep slope of Sugarland Mountain. The thought never occurred to us to explore those ridges.

The fire changed all that. Those formerly uninteresting side ridges are now the most enticing parts of Sugarland Mountain. In fact, now that those four or five side ridges (that is, the Sugar Fingers) are exposed, it is very obvious what they are. They are, essentially, the little sisters of the Chimney Tops ridge.

On a Saturday not long ago, Greg Harrell and I stood in one of the parking pullouts just below the (closed) Chimney Tops trailhead and looked across the valley at the newly-exposed, rocky side ridges of Sugarland Mountain, deciding which one we would spend the day ascending. They all looked dangerously inviting, so we picked the largest, longest one because, well, you’ve gotta start somewhere.

As we looked up and across the valley, my paradigm shifted, and I saw these ridges and the Chimney Tops in a new way, through new eyes. It became obvious that the Chimney Tops were not a separate thing, a separate mountain. No, the Chimney Tops are two prominent peaks on a side ridge of Sugarland Mountain. That’s why there’s an old, obscure side trail from the Sugarland Mountain trail down to the Chimney Tops. That unofficial, side trail follows the crest of the side ridge that culminates at the Chimney Tops.

Now I could see that the new Sugar Fingers were similar side ridges, not very different from the Chimney Tops side ridge. All of these side ridges (including the Chimney Tops) are roughly parallel with each other, forming ribs which connect with the main spine of Sugarland Mountain. The Chimney Tops ridge is the highest, largest, and most dramatic. It is, in a sense, the original Sugar Finger. The Mother of All Sugar Fingers. It’s been open and bare and visible for…  well… nobody knows how long. Centuries probably. The Cherokee referred to them as “the antlers.” So, they were probably bare when the local Cherokees were naming things.

Now, the rest of the Sugar Fingers have been exposed for all of us to see. And explore.

So, on a July Saturday, Greg Harrell and I hopped on the Cove Hardwood Nature Trail, then turned roughly left at the point where the trail’s loop starts. And thus began the worst day of hiking I’ve ever had. [To be continued]

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Sugar Fingers (Part 1 of 4)

The Smoky Mountains have a new addition – the Sugar Fingers. That’s not the official name, but it’s what some online, hiker groups are calling them. They were added to the park recently, not through a donation or purchase of new land. They were created in the past few months by fire and rain.

If you are familiar with the topography of the Smoky Mountains, then you are aware of the string of small, scenic pullouts along the road as you travel up from Gatlinburg toward Newfound Gap. Specifically, between the Chimney Tops Picnic Area and the parking lot of the Chimney Tops trail, there are several pullouts along the right side of the road. When you stop at these pullouts, your eyes are drawn east toward the Chimney Tops, those two rocky spires that are among the most heavily-visited sites in the park. Looking south across the valley gives a pleasant view of the slope of Sugarland Mountain, the long ridge that borders the road from Sugarlands Visitor Center (near Gatlinburg) to the Chimney Tops. In other words, as you drive up this road, just look to your right – you are looking at the slopes of Sugarland Mountain.

In spite of its prominent location, Sugarland Mountain is not very well-known. It’s not the highest or prettiest or “most” anything. Walking the Sugarland Mountain trail along its ridgecrest gives fabulous views of Mt. Le Conte, but Sugarland Mountain itself is kind of plain. Its most outstanding feature is the Chimney Tops; although, most of us think of the Chimney Tops as a separate thing – we don’t usually think of them as an appendage of Sugarland Mountain. Sugarland Mountain is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Smokies. No respect.

But all that has changed in the last few months.

You may also be familiar with Charlies Bunion, that wonderfully epic, rocky outcrop on the AT, four miles northeast of Newfound Gap. If you’ve visited the Bunion then you may also have read a bit of its history. Charlies Bunion (and the other rocky ridges in this part of the park) were created in the 1920s by a fire that swept through this area, burning away the flora and soil. Heavy rains over the subsequent years swept away the rest of the soil, leaving bare, rocky ridges that have only partially recovered over the past 90 years.

That same process is now at work on the slopes of Sugarland Mountain. The Chimneys fire of 2016 burned the upper sections of the Chimney Tops, leaving some burned and bare rocky ridges, then it skipped and jumped its way to Gatlinburg. The fire left most of Sugarland Mountain untouched or lightly-touched. However, the parts of Sugarland Mountain that were heavily burned – and washed bare by winter and spring rains – are the several side ridges that have become the Sugar Fingers.

(Note: I wrote about another “new” site in the park – the Third Chimney – in an earlier article.)

 [To be continued]

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Truth (and other casualties of hiking) Part 2 of 2

Over the years, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern – on a long, hard hike, women often try to be encouraging, even to the point of outright lying. They’ll say things like, “Oh yes, you’re doing great!” Or, “You’re getting close. Just a little farther.” Or, the outright lie, “Yes, you’re almost there.” Even though they know that I’m not almost there, and I know that I’m not almost there, but they don’t know that I know that I’m not. So they lie, expecting me to believe, which sort of makes one wonder about the veracity of the encouragement that we give each other on a daily basis. How often are we faced with this decision: do I give some words of encouragement or do I tell the truth? When you can do both, then do it with grace and enthusiasm, but when you can’t do both, most of us choose to stretch the truth almost to the breaking point. It’s a quaint American custom, but it really isn’t so bad. Lying out of kindness or comfort is better than lying out of greed, pride, and selfishness which, now that I think about it, is also an American custom.  

The other half of the story is hearing what their male hiking partners say. Indeed, I may have found the one area of life in which guys are more truthful than women. On this particular evening hike to the Chimney Tops, a woman had just lied to me: “Yes, just a little bit farther. You’re almost there.” Her lie was so brazen, so deliberate, that I almost called her out, but before I could work up the nerve to chastise her, her husband – who was ten or twenty feet behind her – leaned in toward me, looked ahead to make sure she couldn’t hear him, and he whispered, “Dude, it’s nothing but up from here, and you’re not even close. It’s worth it, for sure, but I don’t know, man. I don’t know.”

I appreciated hearing the unblemished truth from this weary stranger, but as he warned me of the fate that awaited me, I noticed one possible blemish on his version of the truth. He failed to mention that he was a smoker – I saw the pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket – which would mean that his estimation of the difficulty that lay ahead was a bit exaggerated because his lungs were in a weakened state. I wondered if he was one of those guys that you see occasionally on a trail – they’re slogging slowly uphill, gasping for air, so they stop for a break… to rest… and to suck on another cigarette. I’ve never understood why any rational human would take up smoking, but I’ve also heard that most smokers started when they were in their mid-teens, which sort of answers my own question – you know, the part about “rational” humans. And I understand even less why someone who is gasping for air on a hike would think the delightful mixture of smoke, tar, and nicotine would somehow help. I suppose it helps in a different way, not to help the air flow, but to soothe the nerves and to give courage. Which is really the main reason I’m not a smoker (or drinker) – it’s not so much the health hazard; it’s the fact that I think comfort and courage should come from within oneself, rather than from an outside, psychoactive crutch. About the only crutch I use on a regular basis is a hiking stick.

After his sincere warning, he put his head down and hustled to catch up with his lying wife. He seemed a bit sheepish for having told the unadulterated truth, but I’m sure he was proud of himself for having done his good deed for the day. He had made a valiant effort to save me from the fate he had suffered a few hours earlier – a (literally) breath-taking uphill march, ending in breath-taking views from the top.

I went on, in spite of his efforts, and he was right about one thing – it was well worth it, as the Chimney Tops always are.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Girls Are Such Liiars (Part 1 of 2)

Girls are sometimes such liars… but they mean well.

It was late on a Friday afternoon in July, the peak of tourist season, a few months before the Gatlinburg fires. The traffic had been a bit thick but not yet unbearable, but it would become so in another couple of hours as Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge would begin to overflow with tourists lining up to eat or just walk the streets. I’d like to say the most challenging part of spending time in the mountains is the rough, long trails or the impenetrable stands of rhododendron, but to be honest, the biggest challenge is usually the traffic. Even if you intend to spend time in a remote part of the park with very few people, you still have to get there. So traffic – especially in June, July, and August – is an inevitable part of the picture, requiring patience, perseverance, and good music to soothe the savage beast that lurks in the hearts of each of us when we are stuck in traffic.

I slipped through Gatlinburg and drove past Sugarlands and approached the Chimneys area – first the picnic area, then the view of the Chimney Tops in the distance, then the parking lot at the trailhead to the Chimney Tops. This trail is one of the most popular (i.e., crowded) trails in the park. It is two miles, one-way, and mostly up, sometimes steeply. The top end of the trail is an open, airy, exposed, rocky peak that is a bit scary in a few places. It’s a great spot if you can manage the last 50 yards of steep crawling. A lot of people can’t handle those last 50 yards, but a lot of people can, so the entire top is usually full of people. As you drive toward it, if you’ll stop and look carefully at the top, you’ll see what appears to be a colony of ants crawling all along the uppermost ridge and top. The rock itself seems to be heaving and waving. You stop and squint and rub your eyes and look again, and the rock is still moving. But it’s not the rock. It’s the dozens of people on the rock – a colony of tourists, not ants.  

My secret to visiting the Chimneys is to go late in the afternoon, a couple of hours before sunset, as most of the folks are hiking down the trail and back to their cars. From the lofty perch on either the first or second Chimney Top, I watch the sun set, then I turn on my headlamp and walk back down the trail in the dark. I almost always have the Chimney Tops and their trail all to myself. It’s the perfect plan, if you don’t mind hiking in the dark.

Occasionally, I’ll entertain myself on the hike up to the Chimneys by asking an occasional hiker who’s going back down to her car, “Am I getting close?” I’ll ask this at the beginning of the steep part of the hike, knowing that I have a mile to go, which for most of us is definitely not “almost there.” Not to mention the fact that there’s about a half-mile of steep trail just a few minutes in front of me.

The entertainment I derive from this little game is in hearing what the down-hikers have to say in response to my query. Over the years, I’ve noticed an interesting pattern – women try to be encouraging, even to the point of outright lying. They’ll say things like, “Oh yes, you’re doing great!” Or, “You’re getting close. Just a little farther.” Or, the outright lie, “Yes, you’re almost there.” Even though they know that I’m not almost there, and I know that I’m not almost there, but they don’t know that I know that I’m not. So they lie, expecting me to believe. [To be continued]