Monday, February 14, 2011

National Park Hyperbole (Part 1 of 2)

Every now and then, something unusual happens: my time in the Smokies doesn’t live up to my expectations. That happened to me recently in Albright Grove.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learned over the years, it is this: the secret to happiness in life is lowering your expectations. I usually say this as a joke, and yet it’s amazing how often it fits the circumstances, on an almost daily basis. Job, sports, health, relationships, teenagers, our political leaders… the list goes on. So maybe it’s not a joke after all. There must be some truth to it. If you aren’t convinced, consider the Vols’ last few football seasons or your 401(k).

Maybe Albright Grove belongs in this list…

After buying some apples and honey at Carver’s Applehouse in Cosby on a crisp October Saturday (very early October, before the deluge of leaf-watchers struck), Phyllis and I turned onto Baxter Road and wound around to the trailhead of Maddron Bald Trail. There’s room for only 3 or 4 cars here, but today that was plenty. So we shouldered our daypacks and walked past the gate and up the trail. Up is the right word here, but with no exclamation points or capital letters. This trail is wide and well-maintained, and its incline is unrelenting but “moderate,” to quote the trail guide. Yes, it’s that 500’ rise per mile that is very common in the Smokies. That was clearly the gradient of choice in the 1930s when the CCC built these trails. I’ve sometimes wondered if the trails were being built today whether the builders might choose a milder incline because we are today a softer, more delicate people than 75 years ago. Still, 500 feet per mile is manageable, even for those of us who were born in the mid 20th century.

Phyllis and I moseyed our way up the trail, stopping often to examine flowers, leaves, stumps, red squirrels, juncos, even an old cabin. As usual, the surroundings were pleasant. The weather was fabulous. The occasional glimpse of nearby mountain tops showed that the colors of fall were just beginning the show at the highest elevations and would spend the next few weeks marching gradually down the slopes.

Our goal this day was Albright Grove, a portion of the park that is described in some of the park literature as a magnificent section of unspoiled virgin forest that escaped the logger’s axe. I don’t know what you visualize when you hear that, but I visualized a deeply shaded, mature forest with a high, thick forest canopy held aloft by huge trees. It would give the feeling of being in a cathedral with a high, vaulted ceiling. There would be some underbrush, but the shade would have choked out much of it. There would be a sense of openness and depth and peace. As one book says, “Being in the Albright Grove has the kind of effect that lingers in your memory for instant recall, soothes the spirit with profound quiet, gives nourishment to the soul.”

Okay, everyone is entitled to their opinion… and my opinion is that it’s time to lower your expectations. Most of those folks who have written glowing reports of Albright Grove have fallen victim to that dreaded disease – National Park Hyperbole. Its primary symptom is verbal exaggeration. It’s an affliction much like alcoholism or pollen allergies: once you’ve been stricken, you will battle it your entire life, sometimes resisting, sometimes succumbing. If a writer describes a view as “the best” or “the most dramatic” or some such superlative, you can be confident that he’s suffering from a case of NPH. Albright Grove seems to be a spot that triggers serious outbreaks of this affliction.

First, the huge, old trees. Yes, there are many bigger-than-average trees – the largest of which are sickly, some almost dead. I don’t mean to be crass here, but Albright Grove felt more like a nursing home than a cathedral. Those old, old trees surely had some stories to tell, probably going as far back as the Revolutionary War, but they seemed too sick to open their eyes and speak.

That’s not to say that the entire forest was sickly. On the contrary, it was, for the most part, healthy. That’s because most of the forest was young with various species of trees still struggling with each other for dominance. As we walked through the Grove I wondered why. Why not an old, established forest? Why not a cathedral? [To be continued]

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Great State of Denial

Yes, I live in the great state of Tennessee, but lately I’ve been spending an increasing amount of time in the great state of Denial. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As a matter of fact, I kind of like it there. It’s a place where I can do pretty much whatever I want…

As I walked back to the Forney Creek campsite after a late night paddle on Fontana Lake, I expected to crawl into my tent and sleeping bag and drift off to sleep. However, as I crunched though the leaves, I heard a voice: “Dad, is that you?”

Melissa was still awake in her tent. She asked how the paddle was, plus a few follow-up questions. After a minute, John filled in the missing information: “She’s wearing me out! She was worried about you and was about to make me go look for you.”

At first I just chalked Melissa’s worry up to the fact that she’s a caring, sensitive person. And, because she’s like her mother, that’s true. But there was really nothing to be worried about. Paddling at night might get you wet, but it won’t get you killed. And in this case, neither happened. So, why was Melissa worried?

I think it has something to do with my new residence in the state of Denial. Melissa and my wife often worry about me on my outdoor excursions. I think they worry too much, but maybe they have good reason. I’m having trouble acting my age, which is perfectly legal in the state of Denial. I continue to do the same things that I’ve been doing for the past 30 years. In fact, I’m probably doing even more outdoor activities than I used to do, because the clock is ticking. It gets louder and slower with each passing year.

A younger friend of mine has a pre-game mantra that his wife imposed upon him. He must repeat it before every recreation league basketball game: “I’m not 21 anymore. I’m not 21 anymore….” I probably need a similar ritual for the mountains, but it would be more depressing: “I’m not 40 anymore….”

My mind hasn’t fully grasped my new, age-imposed physical limitations. Most guys first notice this on the softball field or basketball court, but it shows up in the mountains, too. You just keep on doing things that you’ve always done, without admitting that you aren’t doing them as well or as quickly as you used to. This puts you into the realm of behavior that keeps your friends and family (especially those females that love you) awake and worried every time you go out into the woods. My jokes about dying nobly in the mountains tend to fall on deaf ears. None of the women in my life (i.e., my wife and daughter) think my death-in-the-wilderness jokes are funny.

When I was younger they worried that I’d do something stupid because I was young and thought I was invincible. Now they worry that I’ll get hurt while simply walking on a trail or climbing onto a river rock. When I do get seriously injured, it won’t be from doing something incredibly stupid; it will happen by doing something that is safe and sensible – for a guy in his 20s or 30s, but maybe not for a guy in his 50s. When I end up with broken bones or dehydrated from exposure, and someone asks me what happened, my short answer will be: “Not acting my age.” Learning to act my age is a lesson I’m still resisting – thus the worried women.

But, bless their hearts, they’ve always just smiled and said, “Have fun and be careful.” They haven’t yet tried to stop me from playing in the rivers, ridges, woods, and lakes. They understand that an old guy’s gotta do what an old guy’s gotta do. Even if he can’t do it as well as he used to.

So if you’d like to spend some time in the state of Denial, just let me know, and I’ll give you directions. It’s a nice place to visit (although, the accident and injury rates are pretty high). In fact, I intend to spend my retirement years there, if I can get Phyllis to agree to the move.