Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Keeping it Local

It hit me when I woke up two Sunday mornings ago in Auburn AL. Or rather it felt like several people and a baseball bat hit me. I wasn't quite sure what to make of the intense aches in my shoulders but since it was a travel day, I shrugged it off and we made our way to the airport in Atlanta. About the time we had finished our climb out, it hit me good. I knew for certain at that point I was sick but I had no idea that I would still not be 100% two weeks hence: whatever I still have while I write this is truly mean.

There was no way that I could hike last Sunday; I could barely walk from the sofa to the bathroom. This week I have been feeling progressively less crappy and so I thought we might try a short hike. Our wanderings take us all over the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia, up to a couple hours away from home. Rarely do we hike here at home but because I have been ill for the last two weeks, I wanted a short hike a short distance from home which is how we came to pick Eagle Rock right here in Frederick County.

The Trail Head on VA55/US48
Tuesday we got a foot of snow down in the valley followed by a couple of warmer days with cold nights, a sure recipe for ice at elevation. Saturday night, the forecast was for a bit more snow overnight. I did not particularly want to chance fresh snow over hidden ice, so we went to bed Saturday night thinking that we would probably be hiking elsewhere at lower elevation. But Sunday morning it was obvious that it never got as cold as predicted and the forecast snow was mainly a misty rain. And so we took a chance that conditions would be passable up on the mountain.

The misty rain down in the valley turned to superfine snow up at the trailhead, where the Tuscarora Trail crosses highway 55 on the VA-WV border. Being up in this part of the county where the ridgeline of Great North Mountain forms the border between the two states, it is easy to see why we have so many snow days in the county, even when roads down in Winchester are easily passable. Living near town, we tend to forget how rugged the far western part of our own county is.

Paddy Mountain Left, Little Sluice Right
To start our 8th hike* of our 52-Hike Challenge in 2017, we climbed up from the road to the ridgeline through the spitting snow. The trail at this point was mostly clear as we ascended through varying parts of the forest, first an oak grove with lots of lichen-covered rocks, and then through a section of mountain laurel with each leaf outlined in white from the gently falling snow. The snow was so fine that it was like powdered sugar. Seeing everything dusted in powdered sugar was so beautiful. And I needed that beauty to distract me for I was feeling terrible and moving slowly. Ann would walk 100 yards and turn around and I would be 50 yards behind her already. But I knew that if I just kept moving, I could make the entire 7.5 miles of trail.

*Yep, if you're doing the math, this is week 12 of the year, and we've only got in 8 hikes so far because of illness and weather. Going to be tough to get 52 in, but we're still after it.

Mountain Laurel in the Snow

Fresh Snow on a Log

Turkey Tracks in the Snow
Making our way north along the ridge, we passed a small microwave tower and then approached a much larger one further down. The power line cut coming up from the east was a great place to stop and look down on the road that we drove in getting here.

Short Mountain Left, Paddy Mountain Right
Shortly thereafter, we came upon a trailside cairn that Ann greatly admired. I'm conflicted by these cairns. LNT (leave no trace) says we shouldn't disturb the natural surroundings that we are visiting, but in a way, cairns are artwork that I find attractive. The subtle hypocrisy in LNT is that our boots and our trekking poles leave their marks anyway.

Trailside Cairn
As I was pondering the LNT aspects of cairns, I came across this stacked stone wall alongside the trail. So much for leaving no trace. Our marks are all over this planet. This could be scene in a Robert Frost poem, no?

Stacked Stone Wall in the Woods
From the second cell tower, the ridge starts to descend towards Dry Gap where VA690/Capon Springs Grade pierces the mountains and provides east-west passage between Virginia and West Virginia. The snow drifts became much higher on the slopes down to and away from the gap. In places such as in the photo below, the drifts were a couple of feet deep. We were fortunate in that someone had been through earlier in the week and had already postholed the trail so that we could follow in his footsteps, a much easier task than breaking trail in deep snow. Still, the snow would grasp and suck at our boots and trekking poles and the going in these parts was slow.

Some Drifts Were Deep

Dry Gap
Down in the gap, we saw the first and only Great Eastern Trail blaze of the day. I vaguely recall hearing about such a trail, but it wasn't top of mind. It is a western AT alternative that runs between Alabama and western NY. I don't believe that the trail is fully built or blazed at this time, and is mainly co-located on bits and pieces of other established trails, such as the Tuscarora on which we were walking.

Great Eastern Trail, Who Knew?

Climbing to Eagle Rock

Rock Formation at Eagle Rock

More Rocks

Cement Bench at Overlook: "Capon Springs & Farms"

Turkey Vulture Over Frederick County

Peak after Peak in the Great North Mountain Complex

Eagle Rock

Eagle Pose on Eagle Rock

Panorama at Eagle Rock

Up at the east-facing Eagle Rock, we were fortunate that the wind was coming out of the west and so we were able to brush the snow off the bench and sit with our backs to the wind and enjoy our lunch. After a bunch of pictures and lunch, we headed back towards the car retracing our route. I found a second wind and a new gear on the way back and that trip was much faster: an hour and thirty-five minutes back to the car versus two hours and twenty minutes out.

Back at the car, we pulled onto 55 from the shoulder where we parked and rapidly accelerated down the mountain in the direction of Winchester. I have often felt a bit carsick when coming off the trail, but nothing like this. To be experiencing the world at 2.5mph for hours and then to suddenly rocket to 60mph in seconds can be very disorienting. After a couple minutes of discomfort, the feeling went away.

In the spirit of staying local, for our post-hike beer, we decided to drop in to Winchester Brew Works, a nanobrewery in town that has been open about 10 months. Now that Ann is coming around to drinking real beer, we can expand our brewing horizons. She enjoyed the dry stout and I enjoyed the Cascade Falls IPA. The beers are all well made and this is certainly a welcome addition to Winchester.

Cascade Falls IPA
It was a good day, even if it started really slowly for me. It was great to discover both great hiking and great beer here in Frederick County.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Chewacla State Park, Auburn AL

Our usual Sunday hike was not on Sunday this week. Our seventh hike of 2017 was unplanned and unexpected on Saturday at Chewacla State Park in Auburn AL. Rewinding to our hike last week in the South District of Shenandoah National Park, I found out just as we cleared 3000 feet in elevation that my mother had died. I left the restaurant in the capable hands of the crew and Ann and I flew to Alabama to be with my family for the service on Friday. It was a heartwrenching and beautiful service to be sure, but I am not ready to say more about it at this time. Maybe later.

Chewacla Lake
Before we get into the story of our hike, I thought I'd throw in a picture of all of us at the cemetery after my mother's service. It certainly was a glorious spring day. From left to right, my sister's children Grace, Charlie, Robert, and Phillip; John and Kathy, my brother-in-law and sister; me, Dad, my brother's daughter Rachel, Laura and Mac, my sister-in-law and brother; Annie, my girls Lillie and Ellie, and Mac and Laura's son Jamie. It seems so surreal that my mother is not in this picture.

The Whole Famdamily
Saturday morning, having discovered that the "free" coffee at the hotel was, as my coffee-fiend daughter Lillie put it, "dirty hot water," Ann and I looked about for a coffee shop where we could get a decent cup and a bite of breakfast before going on our walk. We found Toomer's Coffee Shop right near our hotel and arrived just after they opened at 7:30am. Being up and about so early is just one benefit of our bodies still being on Eastern time, rather than Central time.

Poking the Bear. Bad Girl!
My Yankee wife (just being a Yankee is a crime in parts of the south), who delights in poking the bear, couldn't resist doing a few blasphemous Roll Tides while in Auburn. In the photo above, you see her mimicking waves (the tide) with her hands. One just doesn't say "Roll Tide!" in Auburn with any reasonable expectation of living to see the end of the day. She truly does not understand the religion that is big-time SEC football. My family is entrenched in the AU athletic community: both my siblings work for the Athletic Department and my brother also is a color commentator for ESPN; my parents were the founders of the baseball and softball support clubs. My wife takes great childlike delight in poking them; at times, it is beyond my ability to defend her.

In any case, she offered this particular Roll Tide in pantomime and no one else in the coffee shop could see what she was doing. We survived to eat our sausage, egg, and cheese biscuits. The coffee is really good. I had a cup each of Guatemalan and Malawian drip coffees and they were both excellent. After a lengthy stay at the coffee shop, we left for the 5- to 6-minute drive to the park.

Sausage, Egg, and Cheese Biscuit
Chewacla State Park is a 700-acre quasi-urban park near Auburn AL. Situated at the end of the road off which we lived when I was in high school (where my dad still lives; my brother lives just a mile from the park on the same road), it was the home of Wright's Mill, after which the road was named. In the 1930s, the CCC built many of the amenities that can be found there still today including stone guest cabins, bridges, and the masonry outflow waterfall from the small lake.

We started our day just beyond the entrance gate in one of the parking areas next to the lake, walked northeast along Moore's Mill Creek, crossed the creek on the stone bridge, and walked back southwest along the creek on the opposite bank, climbing a little to the pavilion at the top. From there, we descended the hill to the dam, played on the rocks below the outflow, and walked down the creek until it joined the larger Chewacla Creek. There we turned around and walked back to the dam and along the south side of the lake and Moore's Mill Creek back to the bridge, and from there back to the car, for just slightly over 4 miles on the morning, a very short walk for us. It served its purpose though: to let me get out and get my head clear on a beautiful early spring day.

Mistletoe in an Oak Tree
One of the things that I hadn't realized that I had missed about Alabama was the abundant mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum). My mom would send me climbing trees in our neighborhood every Christmas to get her enough mistletoe. This parasitic plant grows pretty much everywhere in this part of the world. It took a trip back to make me realize that I miss seeing it in Virginia. Likewise, I also miss the stately Southern Magnolias, (Magnolia grandiflora), which we have as rare specimen plants in Virginia. I was surprised to see them growing in the middle of the woods and noted how different their tall skinny habit is when growing in the woods. We are so used to seeing the massive and broadly spreading trees when grown on lawns with no competition from other trees.

Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)

Spring is Here; Wild Cherry in Full Bloom

Annie on the Stone Bridge over Moore's Mill Creek
We crossed the creek on the stone bridge built by the CCC back in the 1930's and then started to climb the opposite bank to the ridgeline and the pavilion above. My brother warned me, "this is a pretty good climb!" You can see in the photo below that we have gained a little elevation from the creek bottom, maybe 150 feet. We chuckled to ourselves as we walked to the top. We count a good climb as a thousand feet of elevation gain in a mile. This was perhaps 150 feet of gain over two miles, what we call flat. I suppose that it is all a matter of perspective.

As we started to climb the hill, I heard a woodpecker in the trees, one that I don't hear very often in our part of the world, but one which I associate with Alabama. As it flew close to the trail in its incessant search for bugs, I visually confirmed that it was indeed a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker. We do have them in Virginia in the summer, but they just aren't that common.

At the Pavilion; Chewacla Creek Below
From the pavilion at the top of the hill, we could hear the water spilling over the dam below and walked down to investigate. While we had had the place all to ourselves until this point, there were tens of people milling around on rocks below the dam.

Dam at Chewacla Lake

Creek Below the Dam
Another thing that I had forgotten that I miss from Alabama is Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides). This very common epiphytic plant throughout the Deep South does not grow in our part of Virginia at all.

Creek Below Dam with Spanish Moss

Annie Checking out a Pond in the Creek

Chewacla Creek
We have yet to see any wildflowers in bloom in Virginia yet, so it was fun to see things starting to pop in Alabama.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

Violet Wood Sorrel (Oxalis violacea)
Although we grow yuccas in our xeric garden at home, they are not common in our part of Virginia other than as a garden plant. Though they do grow in the wild nearly everywhere in Virginia, I don't think I have ever seen a group as large as this one.

Group of Yuccas (Yucca filamentosa)
Annie and I were captivated by the beautiful little bell flowers on the Common Silverbells (Halesia tetraptera) down by the creek. The iPhone couldn't decide what to focus on, but you get the idea. What a charming little shrub.

Common Silverbells (Halesia tetraptera)

Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)
I had a Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) growing on the fence at the restaurant, but it just couldn't take our winters. How fun to see them growing naturally in the trees along the lake and to see the showers of golden flowers on the ground below. Kids, you know that these plants are really poisonous if ingested and can cause contact rashes in some people if handled. They don't bother me. Best not to handle them, even the blooms, as you see Annie doing below.

Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens)

Jessamine Bloom Up Close
Here's a cousin of our Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea) that I have never seen before. It is similar to Golden Ragwort in bloom and in location (with very wet feet on a creek bank), but it has cress-like leaves rather than heart-shaped leaves. This is Butterweed (Packera glabella).

Butterweed (Packera glabella)
The return visit to Chewacla State Park brought back a lot of memories of high school for me. Although it has been vastly modernized and a lot of new trails have been developed, it still is the place where we would swim in the creek after school, where we would sneak the occasional beer, where I competed in triathlons, and where we would mill about on the rocks, what the kids today call "hanging." As a kid, I was in the Boy Scouts and was head (Senior Patrol Leader) of Troop 30 in Auburn and we often did service projects out in the park building trails and repairing bridges over creeks. It was kind of fun to see a visual reminder of our labors as Ann and I walked by the head of the Troop 30 Trail on our way back to the car (though somebody clearly got confused with nearby Troup County GA).

I Helped Build Parts of This Trail
After our walk, we grabbed quick showers and then headed into town to find some lunch before meeting Dad at the softball park for the 3:30 game in which the #2-ranked Lady Tigers would thrash yet another team. We watched them put up 15 runs in the first two innings Thursday night against Liberty University. Before the game, they had a big ceremony to honor my mom, with her picture on the scoreboard and my entire family on the field with all the players to watch my dad throw out the first pitch. It was a very touching ceremony in which all of the coaches and players gave my father big hugs. On Saturday, Auburn would put up 7 runs in the first against Charleston College before putting in all their substitutes who would put up another 7 runs before the game was called on runs in the 5th.

Before the game, we ended up at a place called BurgerFi, where the old Heart of Auburn Motel used to be, for post-hike burgers and beers. Annie got fooled into thinking from their web site that it was more of a beer place than it is, when it is merely a Five Guys clone with a few beers and not craft beers either. She ended up with a Blue Moon or some such and I had a Hopscape from Sam Adams, a not terrible offering from this mass producer. The onion rings were really good and the burgers were a bit better than Five Guys.

BurgerFi Burger, Fries, and Onion Rings

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Paine Run/Blackrock/Trayfoot Mountain, SNP

Alone Atop Blackrock Summit
Saturday morning, Ann got up to have coffee with me before I headed off for the final work day of the week at the restaurant. Thinking about our 6th hike of our 2017 52-Hike Challenge just before I left, I said, "We need to get up early tomorrow and get on the road." After pausing a couple of beats, she said, "Ugh!" You might think that she was reacting to getting up early on a Sunday, but I was on the same mental wavelength with her and I said, "We have Thermoses, don't we?" I just knew she was thinking about the miserable coffee and breakfast experience we had at Sheetz last weekend. I think it's time to face that fact that we are, if not coffee snobs, at least hardcore coffee aficionados. "We can brew a pot while we are packing the car and take it with us," I offered, "And I can make us some breakfast today at work."

Lox and Smoked Bluefish Cream Cheese Sandwiches
And so it was that we started thinking about our hike a day early, a hike that would be our first foray into the southern district of Shenandoah National Park. We set off down I-81 about 8:30am for the long ride armed with coffee and sandwiches of lox and smoked bluefish cream cheese. At Weyer's Cave just south of Harrisonburg, we would leave the interstate and head east to Grottoes and thence to the western boundary of the park a few miles south and east of Grottoes, a straight shot to the dead end on Horsetail Rd. We weren't exactly sure where the trailhead was but it turned out that when the dirt road ended in a little cul-de-sac, the trail was the continuation of the road. It could not have been easier to find.

Most hikes in SNP start on Skyline Drive. I'm not a fan. Invariably, you head downhill (at the top, there's nowhere to go but down, unless you are ridgewalking the AT or a parallel trail) when you are fresh only to have to climb back to your vehicle at the end of your hike. Much better in my opinion to start at a park boundary, climb to Skyline Drive while you are fresh, and then be left with a downhill walk at the end of your day.

Our hike would take us northeast up Paine's Run to Skyline Drive and the Appalachian Trail. After following the AT north to Blackrock Summit, we would head west towards Furnace Mountain but turn off before getting there to walk along the ridge of Trayfoot Mountain southwest back towards the car. This is not a common hike and so finding maps and trail descriptions was a bit of a struggle.

The weather this winter has been nuts. It is still February; it hit 75 degrees this week; and the daffodils have started blooming. Fortunately for us, a cold front blew through about 1pm on Saturday bringing a little thunder, some gusty winds, black clouds, a few spatters of rain, and thankfully, cooler temperatures. We walked Sunday under bright blue skies with slightly gusty winds with temperatures in the 40s; all in all, a great day to be on the trail.

Fording Paine's Run
Paine's Run is a beautiful gurgling little creek that apparently runs along the border between Rockingham County and Augusta County as it falls down from the mountains. The trail up from the end of the road to Skyline Drive and the Appalachian Trail is constantly uphill, but very gentle. It was a harbinger of what would be a very easy 10-mile walk on the day. This yellow-blazed trail allows horses and it was clear from the hoof prints and the horse apples that it is well-used by equestrians, though none were about on Sunday.

Paine's Run is a Beautiful Stream
As we climbed up the hill, we could see several rock formations on the hillside opposite, on Trayfoot Mountain. We would return through these rock formations at the end of our hike.

Rock Formations on Trayfoot Mountain
As we walked up the gentle grade towards Skyline Drive, Ann said to me that she thought we ought to change the name of this blog, an idea that had been percolating in the back of my mind for some time. Originally conceived to document our forays into food and drink, the name Mangia e Beve, while perfect for that, no longer seems to encompass our lives, especially our life on the trail. For many minutes we debated new names and themes, not really getting to a resolution.

We might have come to some idea about rebranding the blog, but that will have to wait. As we climbed to about 3000 feet up on the mountain, just below Skyline Drive, our phones got signal and they both started blowing up simultaneously with message after message and voicemail after voicemail. My mother had died suddenly in her sleep.

I suppose if you must get such terrible news, it isn't so bad to get it on a gorgeous day, out on the side of a mountain, all alone except for your best hiking buddy/friend/wife. After a bit of a daze and a phone call to my sister, there was nothing for it except to push on up the hill. Nothing we could do would change what had happened and I needed to walk.

Blackrock Gap, 700 Feet Below the Summit
Not two or three minutes after restarting our hike, we came upon the parking lot at Blackrock Gap on the western side of Skyline Drive. It was pretty easy to spot the white blaze across the road for the Appalachian Trail, which we took north in an easy walk, climbing gently all the way, just over a mile to Blackrock Summit. The AT started following Skyline Drive as you see in the photo, but stayed west of the pavement as Skyline Drive turned eastward. There was no car traffic so road noise wasn't an issue on this hike as it typically is on the AT in Shenandoah National Park.

On the AT Headed to Blackrock Summit
Just before reaching the summit, you will come to a four-way intersection. If you are northbound on the AT, the Trayfoot trail heads left down the hill and right up to the Blackrock parking lot. Even though you are headed to Trayfoot and ought to be heading left, you really want to stay straight on the AT here. Very quickly you will come to the summit and you will see the Trayfoot Spur trail heading west off the mountain. This is the trail you will take to Trayfoot. But first, keep going around the corner to your right to see all the vistas Blackrock has to offer, before backtracking to the spur.

The higher we climbed the more we could see what looked to be rockslides on the sides of Trayfoot Mountain. These are in truth scree fields made of very large boulders, though that is impossible to tell from a distance. It was only as we climbed to Blackrock Summit, itself a rock scramble of a scree field, that we could gauge the size of the rocks. These appear to be a form of sandstone (NPS says it is quartzite from highly compressed quartz sand) from an old seabed that tends to fracture into blocks. From the rusty color of a lot of blocks, I surmise that there is a fair amount of iron lurking in this stone. As you can see in the photo below, some blocks are nearly as tall as Ann.

Approaching Blackrock Summit

Looking Southwest Down Paine Run; Trayfoot Right
Given Blackrock Summit's very close proximity to Skyline Drive, we were fortunate to have it almost to ourselves. We met a young family just leaving as we were approaching and three other hikers came south down the AT, but did not linger (Why people? It's gorgeous here!), as we were scrambling to the very top.

Northwest from Blackrock

Summit Marker at AT-Trayfoot Spur Junction

On the Rockpile

Annie Bundled Against the Wind
After winding around the summit on the AT, we backtracked a few yards to a decent enough looking spot, just opposite the junction of the Trayfoot Spur and started scrambling to the top. The huge rocks were a good bit tougher for Ann to climb than for my huge self. I climbed all the way to the top for the incredible 360-degree views.

After 20 minutes or so on the summit, it was time to get down out of the wind and find a more sheltered spot for lunch. Taking the Trayfoot spur trail west down from the summit through the boulder field, we found a small north-facing cliff face on which to sit and enjoy our lunch of baked orzo with ricotta and salsa bolognese, finished with an almond-fudge cookie. Who says we don't eat well?

Funny story about the pasta. On the way up, just before we got into the thick of our discussion about renaming the blog, we were talking about pasta and when we last had real pasta. Although we love it dearly, we're both still some pounds too heavy (but lots lighter than at this time last year) and it's not on the diet. We both had a good laugh when I asked what the odds were that I brought pasta for lunch: Ann because she knew it was impossible and I because I knew I had small containers of pasta hidden in my pack. With all the calories we are burning, we can eat a bit of pasta now and again. Who would have thought that cold pasta could taste so good?

Trayfoot Ahead, Taking the Spur
After lunch, we continued on west around the northern shoulder of Trayfoot, which you see in the photo above. Although it looks pretty high, it is only 300 feet above us with most of that elevation gain coming in the last tenth of a mile to the summit. That was the only steep gradient of the day and it was very, very short. Once at the summit, which you reach almost immediately at the northern end of Trayfoot, it is a long slow descent over about three miles back to the car along the ridgeline. Out east are decent enough views to see how high we are above Skyline drive off in the distance. I imagine that this ridgeline trail becomes a long green tunnel when the leaves are out, so it is another trail best hiked in winter.

Skyline Drive Below in the Distance

A White Polypore?
Once we neared the southern end of the mountain, the trail started weaving in and out of the rock formations, making for a very interesting ridgeline hike, before dropping off the end of the hill and quickly back down to the creek. We encountered five hikers on this part of the trail, coming up from where we parked the car; otherwise, we had the trail all to ourselves. It was a beautiful day for a hike and though ours was the lone car at the trailhead when we left, there were 7-8 others there when we finished around 2:30pm.

Trayfoot Trail Weaves Among the Rocks
We had decided to stop for a beer in Harrisonburg on the way back to Winchester. The original plan was to stop at Three Notch'd Brewing's Harrisonburg outpost and see what their beer was all about with a potential stop later at Brothers Brewing. We ended up liking Three Notch'd so much that we stayed for a second beer and decided to forego Brothers, whose beers we have had on numerous occasions.

Three Notch'd Brewing's Industrial Vibe

Minute Man New England Style IPA

Jack's Java Espresso Stout
Annie got Jack's Java Espresso Stout which was pretty amazing. We've poured both Troeg's Java Head and Monocacy's Brewtus Coffee Imperial Stout at the restaurant and both are excellent beers. Jack's is both creamier and more coffee-flavored. No secret that I'm a big hops guy. The bartender said he had just the beer for me and brought me a taste of Minute Man IPA. I was dubious because the chalkboard description for this beer read "20 IBU" and most of the beers I have been drinking recently are in the 100+ category.

I was so confused by the fresh citrus hop nose and the fresh hops on the palate that I actually went back up to the bartender to ask him how a beer that is less bitter than their stout can have so much hop character and such a wonderful hop nose. The beer is dry hopped after the wort is cooled, giving it a lot of aromatics without the bitterness from boiling the hops. I'm a believer. This beer was awesome.

Awesome Post Hike Beer Drinking Recliners!
How cool was it that they have recliners for us to relax in après hike? Two beers, a decent hike, and some crushing news and I was spent. Ann drove us home up I-81. We spent a half an hour mired in ten miles of stop-and-go traffic because of an accident near Maurertown. I didn't bank on that and with two beers on board, we had to make a screaming emergency restroom exit in Stephens City. Whew!