Friday, December 14, 2012

Take A Walk On The South Side (Part 2 of 5)

The best reason to live in the South is March. While it can be fickle, by the end of March we’ve traded our house slippers and our ice scraper for T shirts and lawn mowers.

The fact that the Smoky Mountains are several thousand feet higher than the surrounding countryside means that their temperatures are more like Boston than Knoxville. So to get a good taste of springtime in the mountains in March you must plan your visit carefully. It’s best to visit the park at a time when the sun has been shining for several days, so the cold front that blew through has time to melt into the warmth of several days of sunshine.

It’s also wise to focus on low elevations and south facing slopes that get more sunshine than north slopes. This makes Cades Cove a good springtime destination because the road is about 1,800’ in elevation – only about 700’ higher than my home and 3,200’ lower than Newfound Gap. Of course, as the name “cove” implies, it’s relatively flat and open as well, so it gets lots of sunshine.

Phyllis and I keep an eye on the Daffodils in our yard. Once they begin blooming, we’ll wait about two weeks and head to Cades Cove. While daffodils are not a native, mountain flower, they are scattered throughout the park because the families that used to live in the park loved Daffodils growing outside their homes. The roadsides and trails of the park sparkle with Daffodil yellow, giving evidence of the spots where mountain families raised kids, corn, hogs, and flowers.

Even the CCC workers loved Daffodils. There’s a spot in Cades Cove (about three miles from the start of the loop road, across the road from Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church) where the Daffodils sprout in a pattern that outlines the location of the old CCC camp site, including a patch that spells out a yellow-green “Company 5427”.  It’s a pleasant little detail that few people notice because it lasts for only a few weeks, and it’s just far enough off the road to be out of the way. (To see it, cross the road from the white frame church building, find the small CCC plaque on the knee-high rock, then walk about 50 yards toward the lone cedar tree in the field. The Company 5427 site is just beyond the cedar tree.)

Cades Cove Daffodils, Company 5427

The park’s black bears also get the urge to get outside sometime in March, especially if March is acting more like April and less like February.  Most den up (most of us would call it hibernation, but the biologists say that, technically, it’s just a very deep sleep – metabolism slows to about 50%) in hollow spots in trees above the ground – warmer and safer than under rocky overhangs. When cubs emerge with their mothers they weigh about five pounds – so to see a tiny cub, go out in the warm, late weeks of March. The sunny, low terrain of Cades Cove is a good spot to get an early season glimpse of these iconic, Smokies inhabitants.

There are also numerous nooks and crannies in the park which, because they face south, will warm up much sooner than their north-facing cousins across the valley. On south-facing slopes and valleys, March looks and feels like April. On north-facing sites, March resembles February.

One particularly good stretch of south-facing slopes that get plenty of sun is the stretch of Newfound Gap Road between mile markers 7 and 8. As you drive up this road (toward North Carolina) the left side of the road has numerous rocky slopes and valleys that absorb the sun’s warmth, so even though 3,000’ to 3, 500’ is a bit high, this piece of the landscape bursts into bloom in March. Spring Beauties, Hepaticas, and Yellow Violets decorate the ground. The annual Reawakening that really hits its stride in April begins showing itself in March. It happens in fits and starts, but it does happen – March finally begins acting more like April and less like February, and the on-again, off-again mood swings of March finally settle into the warmth of April.  

One particularly lovely, south-facing slope is Fort Harry Falls…

[To be continued]

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Tale of Two Seasons (1 of 5)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was hot, it was cold, it was rainy, it way snowy, it was sunny, it was stormy. It was March.

Here in East Tennessee the month of March is the time when we dare to get our hopes up. It’s the month when the seagulls leave Cherokee Lake. It’s the month when the Daffodils typically bloom (although, Daffodils are a gullible breed who can be tricked into blooming just about any time after the New Year). The Serviceberry tree at the end of my driveway blooms a brilliant, delicate white. Many of us get our first, glorious sunburn in March, usually from doing yard work in a T shirt.

It’s also the month that we get the most snow, tornados reappear after their winter hibernation, and we get back to pulling weeds and cutting grass. March is the month when I try to sleep with our windows open about six inches so I can hear owls and mockingbirds at night and wrens in the morning, but then must get up in the middle of the night to close them because the heater has kicked on. I’m willing to endure numerous hardships to enjoy the great outdoors, but burning propane unnecessarily isn’t one of them. Yes, March is the time when we dare to get our hopes up, only to have them crushed by the tilt of the earth in relation to the sun, only to have them raised again the next day.

March is a fickle month, but not completely unpredictable. If it’s cold today, it will be warm in a couple of days. If it’s warm today, it will be cold soon. In that respect, March is as predictable as a pendulum. It’s two seasons shuffled into a single month.

March, acting like February

I’ve heard some folks say that they couldn’t live in New England or the Rockies because of January. There’s just too much snow and cold and ice in the middle of the winter. Their winters are too dang deep. Not me. As much as I love the coast of Maine and the mountains of Colorado, I couldn’t live there because of March. In those places, winter is just too dang long. In Tennessee, March is the month in which it becomes obvious that winter won’t last forever.

March, acting like April

Having lived a winter-deprived childhood in Florida, I don’t mind a deep winter with respectable amounts of snow and ice. I like walking around in my home with fuzzy slippers and a mug of hot chocolate. (Winter is the only time of year I wish I liked coffee.) I like watching the Robins form winter flocks as if they intended to migrate south, but then never quite getting around to leaving. Juncos and White-throated Sparrows make their brief, winter appearance under our bird feeder. I don’t even mind scraping the windshield in the morning.

But by March, it’s time to move on. I’m ready to keep the windows open all night. I’m ready to put my slippers away for another year. I’m sick and tired of scraping my windshield. In other words, I love winter… but only for a couple of months. By the middle of March, I’m over it, and thankfully, East Tennessee is pretty much over it, too. Yes, we’ll still get some ice, and maybe some snow, but by late March the back of my neck is peeling from too much sun, and it has become obvious that spring has returned to East Tennessee. In the Rockies, people are beginning to think that their memories of spring are merely hazy remnants of a previous life.

Of course, in March all those hardy souls in Maine and Colorado still have their snow tires and chains on, are still burning wood in the fireplace, and are walking around in fuzzy slippers and robes, trying not to descend into a screaming case of March Madness. As March grinds along, that beautiful blanket of snow starts feeling like quicksand, and a lot of folks probably trade their hot coffee for hard liquor because desperate times require desperate measures.

In one of Robert Frost’s poems, he scolds April for sometimes acting like March instead of May. If he had lived in the South instead of New England he would have shifted his time frame a month earlier. He’d have scolded March for sometimes acting like February. In New England they look forward to April; here, we look forward to March.

Ahh, March! It’s the best reason to live in the South. [To be continued.]