Monday, October 31, 2016


Ann has been talking about me cooking a paella for months. Our last experience in doing paella at the beginning of October was that the weather was brutally hot, so she scheduled it this fall for the end of the month. Naturally, it was the hottest day we have had in a month, topping out at 83 degrees and somewhat uncomfortable in the sun. Fortunately, the gusty winds out of the south made it somewhat bearable.

The Guest of Honor
Once guests started arriving, we could see the telltale darkness on the horizon out west and several of us started looking at the radar to see how bad and how soon the rain would be. How soon? A lot sooner than the predicted 6:30. How bad? Some gusty wind and a bit of rain, not enough to send us inside, the wisteria vines on the arbor giving us enough cover.

Searing the Chicken and Chorizo; Look at the Wind!

Sofrito Cooked, Stock Coming to Boil

Rice About Half Done, Adding Mussels

Mussels Just Open, Shrimp in, Max Flame for Soccarat
With all the wind, I couldn't get the paella done as quickly as usual; the heat was blown off the pan. Such is cooking outdoors over a fire. Of the hundreds of frames I shot, these are all the photos worth looking at and many of these are pretty terrible. I'm afraid I'm not very good with the camera. I was trying to use my 50mm prime lens and I still don't have it figured out. I need to find another strategy for shooting handheld interior shots in low light without resorting to flash. (The little voice is saying, "use the iPhone, idiot!").

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Halfmoon Mountain/Lost River Brewing

Not only could we see Signal Knob and the rest of the Massanuttens extremely well from I-81 near Stephens City, we could see the shadows outlining each fold and protrustion in the earth and as we got closer, we could see individual trees. That's a clear day, thanks to the cold front that blew through on Saturday. Fortunately, the 20-40mph wind gusts accompanying that front had calmed to 10-20mph gusts on Sunday, leaving us with absolutely perfect hiking weather, starting in the upper-40s and climbing to just over 60.

We headed west on 55/US 48 from Strasburg skirting around the north end of Little North Mountain and crossing Great North Mountain and the Tuscarora Trail before dropping down into the Lost River Valley and Wardensville, WV. At the end of the main drag, just after Lost River Brewing, we turned left onto Trout Run Rd and headed to the well-marked Bucktail Trail parking area about six miles up on the left. This is as easy a trailhead to find as they come.

Coincidentally, Trout Run Rd runs back south and east through Wolf Gap into Shenandoah County, VA where it becomes 675, Wolf Gap Rd, the road we were on last weekend when hiking Big Schloss just over the border in Virginia.

We arrived at the trailhead about 9:45am, it being just slightly less than an hour drive from home, and were perhaps the twelfth car there. Nonetheless, we got a space right next to the gate and we did not see many of those people on the trail. I am guessing that a lot of the cars belonged to overnighters who made a two-day trek of the trail.

It was quite by accident that we got to Halfmoon Mountain on Sunday. Ann was looking at hikes and thought that she had sent me a link to one on the AT that she wanted to do, but ended up cutting and pasting the wrong link, the one to Halfmoon. I liked it so much that I asked if we could do it rather than the out and back hike on the AT. I'd like to get as many hikes in the George Washington National Forest as possible before deer season opens November 21.

Speaking of the GWNF, we really love hiking there as opposed to Shenandoah National Park which sees so many tourists and where the trails can be crowded. Sunday, we saw six hikers all day on our loop which started from the Bucktail parking lot and heading north to the bridge over Halfmoon Run where the Capon Trail starts. From there we headed east up the creek, picked up the Old Mine Trail forest road for a little bit, then climbed the steep German Wilson Trail to the saddle where we turned west and climbed to the summit of Halfmoon Mountain. Back down from there to the yellow-blazed Halfmoon Trail, at this point less than a mile from where we were hiking the Mill Mountain Trail last weekend, to the pink-blazed Bucktail Cutoff Trail and back to the car for a circuit of about 10.6 miles in about five hours.

We Made the Circuit of Halfmoon Mountain
As I lamented last weekend, there just isn't much color this year, likely due to the drought in August. From up top, scanning over the mountainsides, you can see sugar maples here and there starting to go red, but the color is not glorious this year. It looks like a year where everything just goes brown and drops, probably on the first rainy day in November. We did happen upon one hickory tree going golden and bathed in sunlight, glowing for all the world to see.

Lone Hickory Turning Yellow
The first part of the trail heading north was on fire road and we made very good time (for us) covering 3.5 miles in 90 minutes. Once we hit the bridge over Halfmoon Run, the trail started following the creek east up the hill and footing was a lot more iffy, with a lot of loose rock under the leaves. We crossed the creek several times before climbing up and away from it to meet a wide forest road. At times, it was anyone's guess which side of the creek the actual trail was located on, but there was no doubt that we just needed to follow the creek up the mountain.

To Make the Loop, Don't Cross This Bridge
From the wide and open forest road, I nearly missed the turn off to the left for the purple-blazed German Wilson trail. The photographer in me constantly scans the sides of the trail for interesting things to photograph and so things that don't belong stick out to me. I happened to see something rectangular, very much like a sign, up in the bushes on the left. It happened to be the trail sign for the German Wilson trail. I can see that many people would miss this. Be careful.

Upon leaving the fire road, the German Wilson trail became immediately steep and then turned right following a gully between two hills, a dry creek bed. Footing was iffy and my hiking poles came in quite useful in seeking out safe places to step in the deep leaves. This trail was also not well maintained or well marked. The photo below shows what you are dealing with for faint blazes.

Blazes are Tough to Spot at Times

Red Leaf on Mountain Laurel
The German Wilson trail, though steep, is short and ends in a saddle where it joins the white-blazed trail to the summit of Halfmoon Mountain which is also a short walk from the intersection. Just at the end, it becomes a bit more rocky and more vertical. As you go up, there are more and more views, mainly to the east looking out at Mill Mountain. At the summit, there is the ruined foundation of an old tower.

Rocks Just Before Summit

Looking East at Mill Mountain
The views at the top are mainly to the south and if you keep pushing past the summit, through the little two-tent camping area in the swale below the tower, and just a bit further west, there is another larger rock outcrop that has fantastic views to the south and west. From the first outcropping just below the abandoned tower, you can see the peaks of Great North Mountain as they stretch away to the south to and beyond Wolf Gap.

And South at Big Schloss, Wolf Gap, and Tibbet's Knob

Annie Checking out Derelict Tower
The second outcropping gives great views of Trout Run Valley running down to Wolf Gap, framed by Great North Mountain to the east and Long Mountain to the west. Despite the gusty breeze, we took our lunch here at this outcropping and marveled at how beautiful this place is. Even in full sun, we had to pull on an extra layer because of the wind. We had the run of the place while we were up there eating our lunch, wraps of hummus, Canadian bacon, salami, tapenade, and arugula. We last saw a couple who spent the night up top an hour before and we wouldn't see anyone else until we met a threesome of young ladies a mile down the hill, 90 minutes later. That is great solitude.

Trout Run Valley, Long Mountain to Right

Big Schloss Behind Ann
Coming down off the mountain was a long schlep and in places, my knees were bothering me from the constant downhill. Other than that, it was a fairly uneventful 90-minute walk back to the car. I did notice that the intersection of the yellow- and pink-blazed trails could have been very tricky to find (that is, you could have walked past the head of the pink trail without even noticing it). And once on the pink trail, we did have a couple of moments of "Now, where is that trail?" in the deep leaves.

There was also one turn in the pink blazed trail as it joined an old wagon road for a brief time that could have been really hard to notice had we been going the opposite direction. The temptation would have been to continue straight up the mountain on the wagon trail and totally miss the poorly blazed turn-off. We finally arrived back on the orange-blazed fire road on which we started. We missed seeing the pink-blazed trail take leave of the fire road as we hiked out in the morning. About 20 paces back down the fire road, I turned around to try to understand why I missed the turn-off. At 20 paces, the pink-blazed trail was unrecognizable.

All this is by way of saying that these less popular trails are less well marked and you need to have your wits about you. A map helps too and you should always have a compass. Know how to use them too. It would be nearly impossible to get lost here though, with the mountain to your back in the east, you are in an area bordered by Deep Gutter Run (issuing from Sandstone Spring on the Mill Mountain Trail) to the south, Halfmoon Run to the north, and Trout Run (road and creek) to the west.

No good hike should be without its just reward and so we stopped in Wardensville at Lost River Brewing. Our last visit here was in 2012, though to be fair, we did try to stop on the way back from our Labor Day excursion to Blackwater Falls, but they were closed. We grabbed the two stools at the bar closest to the front door and after a long wait on our unhurried/lackadaisical barkeep, I got a Pale Ale and Ann got a Shocktop. The Pale Ale was decent enough: not the best, not the worst, but fresh and drinkable.

Lost River, Decent Pale Ale
Our bartender wasn't too concerned about doing her job. It took some doing to order some food and another beer. The restaurant was somewhat busy, but despite that, the kitchen was really, really slow. Not sure if they are understaffed or staffed with cooks who also run about 35mph in a 60mph zone, just like the bartender. The appetizers Ann ordered were done well. The wings were excellent as were the fries. The fries were desperate for some seasoning, however. After our apps took 35 minutes to come out, I went ahead and put our burger order in so that we wouldn't be sitting there all night.

Really Good Wings

Salt and Vinegar Fries (Absent Salt and Vinegar)
After waiting for 45 minutes, Ann finally asked the bartender to see if she could find our burgers in the kitchen. This was a new bartender; apparently the shift changed at 4:30. She said, "Didn't she [the previous bartender] tell you that our burgers take 30-40 minutes to cook?" Being in the business, my bullshit detector hit high alert, but before I could say anything, Ann pretty much cut off her line of bullshit by saying that rare burgers don't take any time to cook and would she go check on them. She came out about five minutes later bearing burgers, well cooked and tasty. The onion rings were great as well. The food was worth the wait.

A Very Good Burger; Nice Onion Rings Too
We returned back to Winchester via 259, Carper's Pike, which runs down the VA-WV border for a while, and US 50, just for a change of pace, touring scenic (said tongue in cheek) Yellow Spring and High View, WV. We arrived home just before dark. It was a great day and I recommend both the hike and the brewery.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Big Schloss

After seeing photographs from Big Schloss, on the Virginia-West Virginia border between Shenandoah and Hardy Counties, I texted Ann that we just had to put it on our list of hikes to do. It finally rose to the top of the list this past weekend and I am so glad that it did. It may have been my favorite hike of the year so far. The Big Castle is a prominent sandstone outcropping standing a long way above everything in the Great North Mountain range at 2964 feet, giving amazing 360-degree views of Virginia to the east and West Virginia to the West. The summit itself is just barely in Virginia.

Big Schloss
We set out around 8:30 from Winchester after coffee and going through the motions of packing up the car. With almost no sleep the night before, I found this a lot more challenging than it should have been, to the point where I was sure I would forget something. After a stop for gas, we finally got on I-81 heading south. Though it's only 32 miles as the crow flies from our house, it took us about an hour and five or ten minutes to arrive at the parking lot on FS 92, a nicely maintained dirt road. I take it, but I don't know for sure, that the FS stands for Forest Service. All the trails we walked were on Federal property, spanning two states, in the George Washington National Forest.

I'm really glad I found the GPS coordinates of the parking area and studied Google Earth to see where I was going in advance. Directions to this parking area are scarce on the web. On the ground, though, the trailhead wasn't that hard to find as it occurs in a big bend in FS 92 just after it crosses Little Stoney Creek. One set of directions had the parking lot on the right coming from our direction; clearly it is on the left. In any case, the trailhead is in a fairly remote area and the roads are not well marked. I navigated by mileage taken from Google Maps.

Once in the parking area, we checked out the signboard that offers the map below. Our journey to Big Schloss took us in a counterclockwise loop initially heading north on the yellow-blazed Little Stony Creek Trail to the junction with the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail at the Sugar Knob Cabin. Then we climbed west up to the junction with the orange-blazed Mill Mountain Trail and hiked back south to the white-blazed trail leading up to Big Schloss. From there we backtracked north to the Carolina blue-blazed Big Schloss Cutoff Trail back to FS 92 and the car. Our GPS had us at about 13 miles total for the day for the roughly 12-mile loop and a bit more for visiting overlooks along the way.

We Did the Little Stony Creek-Mill Mountain Loop
As soon as we got out of the car, a couple came walking up out of the woods from the direction of the Woodstock Reservoir. I did a double-take, not expecting to see two people that I know from back in Winchester. The odds of running into each other like this must be vanishingly small, yet it happened. Another guy pulled in just about this time and he was looking to meet up with the Northern Virginia Hiking Club to do the same hike we were about to do. I wasn't terribly happy about having to share the trail with a big group and we shoved off about 10 minutes to 10, their meet up time.

Trails Are Very Well Marked
The Potomac Appalachian Trail Club maintains the trails in this area and they are going a great job. The trails are in great shape. I moved the usual newly fallen limbs off the trail as I encountered them, but on the whole, the trail is wonderfully maintained. We started by following the yellow-blazed trail along Little Stoney Creek north in the direction of the Sugar Knob Cabin, a four-person primitive shelter at the intersection of the Little Stony Creek and Tuscarora Trails.

We both started out the day in shorts and long sleeves as the temperature was in the upper 40s to about 50 when we started our hike. About a mile in as we were getting limbered up, the sun started filtering down in the little creek valley and we took a quick break to shed our outer layers. I noticed in the first mile that my left ankle was a bit tender from my fall two weeks before on the Massanutten Trail. I was then glad that we took last week off from hiking. About two miles in, I first reached for my bandana to wipe the sweat from my brow: so much for it being cool. The climb up to the cabin is gentle but relentless.

At some point about an hour in and a few minutes before we hit the cabin, we were both working up a good hunger, not really having eaten much breakfast. Ann asked what I had made for lunch and I enthusiastically described the Canadian bacon and tapenade roll-ups that I made, my mouth watering. And as I finished describing them, I said, "And, I left them at home!" Doh! I did forget something in my early morning stupor. It wasn't a big deal other than we were both really looking forward to tucking in to them a bit later. We always leave plenty of emergency food in our packs and I had just made a big batch of trail mix for Ann. All day, we snacked on that bag of dried cranberries, peanut M&Ms, and oats and almonds roasted with maple syrup and a lot of salt.

Break Time at Sugar Knob Cabin
We took our first big break at the Sugar Knob Cabin and were quickly joined by the leaders of the big Northern Virginia group following. It would be our lot to leapfrog them all day. In essence, we might as well have been a part of that group. I'm not knocking them. They were well behaved, quiet enough, polite, and respectful. It's just that they're a group and I go into the woods to get away from groups. And, I want to walk my own walk and that's tough to do in a group. If I want to take five minutes to stalk a butterfly to get a good picture, I don't want to hold other people up. In any case, when we left the cabin for the Tuscarora Trail, only three of the fourteen group members were there. We pushed on ahead of them.

Color on Tuscarora Trail
The character of the trail really changed as we left the creek valley and turned west onto the Tuscarora Trail. We climbed gently up through very open and at times very sunny forest on a trail wide enough to drive a jeep. It was a lot more arid on this trail especially when contrasted with the often muddy creek-side trail that we had just hiked.

Blueberries Turning Color
In mid-October, we expect to start getting some good color on trees, but that isn't really happening this year, probably because of the severe drought we had in August. A lot of trees have already dropped their leaves. We did see a few patches of paradoxically red blueberries and when looking out over the mountains, we could see some sugar maples going red, but 2016 does not look like a good year for fall color in our part of the world.

Lots of Barren Trees
After a very short and gentle climb, we turned left off the Tuscarora Trail heading south on the well-marked Mill Mountain Trail which follows the spine of Mill Mountain forming the border between Virginia and West Virginia. In essence, our right feet could have been in WV while our left were in VA, not that you could tell on the ground. Nowhere did we see any state-line boundary markers.

The Mileages Were Very Accurate
In certain areas, especially while walking this part of the ridge, we really had to concentrate on not slipping on the newly fallen acorns; they are worse than any wet leaves. And in some places, we had to worry about the acorns falling all around us. The wild turkeys should be very happy this year.

Great Acorn Crop This Year
 Aside from the acorns, signs of fall are everywhere as you will see in the following photos.

Fall Still Life

Virginia Creeper on Lichen

Columbine Changing Color

Still Life with Pine Cone

Neat Mushroom Cluster
Although I enjoyed the Mill Mountain Trail, views are few and far between on it. Finally, we came upon a nice rock outcropping overlooking West Virginia about 2/3 of the way to Big Schloss. It was just before here that the hiking group passed us and though I really didn't think much of at the time, one of the hikers was carrying both his trekking poles awkwardly in his right hand and not using them.

While we were at the overlook, we climbed up into the sun and took a moment to look out over the Lost River south of Wardensville. When Ann climbed back down to me, I noticed that she had scraped her leg climbing the rock, but it appeared to be minor and she didn't mention it. Only the next day did I see that the little scrape was surrounded by a big bruise. She has no idea how it happened.

We took our leave of the group who were still taking a water break, heading out to Big Schloss several minutes ahead of them. It wasn't too far from here that Ann said something about her left foot hurting and we stopped to put some padding over a newly forming blister. Annie got new boots this past week after discovering the hard way that her former shoes were too small. And over my objections, she insisted on wearing the new boots anyway, with predictable results. I even carried her old shoes in my pack so that she could switch out after a while. But no, I have a thick-headed wife! I would rebandage the blisters up on top of Big Schloss so that she could continue on to the car.

Mountain Goat Annie

Looking at Lost River, WV
After the intersection with the Big Schloss Cutoff Trail, Mill Mountain morphed into Big Schloss and the canopy opened up. Though we saw a few purple asters on the roadsides driving in and a few white asters creekside near the parking lot, we had seen no wildflowers all day, until this point where some sun could get through the trees. I noticed a lot of new plants and growth now that it has cooled off and we have got some rain. There were huge patches of just sprouted bull thistles, for example.

Striking Fuchsia Stems on Pokeberry, Phytolacca americana

A Few Asters in Bloom

Phenomenal Wild Basil, Clinopodium vulgare

Knotweed Still in Bloom

A Snakeroot on Top of Big Schloss

Solidagos Among the Few Plants in Bloom

Rare Photo of the Photographer
It was really neat to turn a corner on the trail and suddenly see the Big Schloss outcropping looming in the distance, topped with tiny people. Ann exclaimed, "Are we really going up there?" about three quarters of a mile before the top. The Northern Virginia group passed us again here under the cliffs. As we approached the rock formation, the hikers up top got a bit bigger but they were still a long way up as we walked under the western edge of the cliffs to the south side of the mountain where the white-blazed approach trail heads back north and east up to the summit.

As we turned onto the summit trail, we noticed the same hiker sprawled out on the ground, sucking wind, and pulling a full 2-liter bottle of iced tea and another of water out of his brand new and immense pack that was loaded with tons of other stuff and festooned with shiny pastel-hued carabiners. One of the hike leaders was staying back with him. He was clearly a novice hiker who had decided to make one of his first jaunts a 12- or 13-mile hike. I was worried about his ability to get back to the car and no doubt so were the hike leaders. He finally did make it to the summit where he rested in the shade. I don't imagine that he was enjoying himself or the spectacular views very much.

After a brief hike to nearly the top, as we came out of the woods, we were rewarded with spectacular views both east and west. Continuing on just a few more yards, right before the summit there is a 45-foot long wooden bridge across a small chasm. The bridge leads to the top of the rock formation that we could see from the trail below. Sadly, we were nowhere near alone: I would estimate that there were 30 people up top, way more than I wanted, but with Big Schloss being only about two miles from the Wolf Gap parking lot, a lot of casual use is to be expected.

Looking West Over the Lost River

Looking South from Big Schloss

The Bridge at Big Schloss

Color and Scenery Was Fantastic

Big Schloss East Side; People for Scale

Color at Big Schloss Peak

Annie Enjoying the View...

...And Her Obligatory Boot Shot

Looking West from Big Schloss

More of the Stacked Sandstone Formation

Annie in Another Yoga Pose

And Again, Little Sluice in Background

And With a Friend
Because of the crowd and the warm sun, we backed off the summit in favor of a shaded spot looking due east over Little Sluice Mountain. As I sat down, I heard the high, thin "tsee" call of a Cedar Waxwing and in a couple of moments spotted a lone Waxwing in an oak tree next to a tree containing a lot of fruit. Sad to say, but I don't recognize what kind of tree it was; the fruit was similar to choke cherries but the bark of the tree was all wrong. Cedar Waxwings are never solo birds and it didn't take long to notice several others in the fruit tree, all masquerading as dead leaves, gobbling down fruit. I would estimate that there were at least 50 of them in the surrounding trees. Because of their furtive nature often in the tops of trees, I don't often see them in range to photograph. It's too bad that their plumage is really dull this time of year.

Cedar Waxwing
The final 3.7 miles back to the car, backtracking along the Mill Mountain Trail, down the hill along the Big Schloss Cutoff Trail, and the final half-mile along FS 92 were fairly uneventful, but painful for me. Coming down off a big rock, I tweaked my right knee a bit and it was killing me going back down the hill. This getting old stuff is for the birds! Downhills are tough on my knees anyway and there are some steepish spots on the Big Schloss Cutoff Trail that were knee-unfriendly.

We left the big group at the summit, but they passed us about three-quarters of a mile down the trail, and then we caught up with them once again at the cutoff trail. We let them go ahead of us there, but we passed the newbie hiker a mile and a half later. Clearly he had taken a big spill, but fortunately was apparently unhurt save for his feelings. We passed the group for a final time at FS92 as they waited for their stragglers to catch up. The relatively flat dirt road proved smooth sailing for my knee, so we made good time back to the car. We arrived a couple minutes before the main group.

We enjoyed a beer in the parking lot while getting out of our hiking shoes and stowing our gear. At 5pm, it was starting to get dark back in the woods. We said our goodbyes to the group and took a short walk down to Little Stoney Creek after they had gone. I took a tumble on the rocks as one of my flip-flops came off and that was enough of a day for us. We packed it up and headed back to the house. During the ride home, Carter texted to ask if we would go to Chili's with him for dinner. This is where he now works and he wanted to show us off a bit. At this point, having noshed only on granola, we both felt like we could have eaten horses.

Post Hike Next to Little Stony Creek
After a quick shower back home, we left with Carter and his girlfriend of-the-moment Jess to go to Chili's where Carter was the man in charge, getting us a table in his favorite server's section. The beer was epically boring and the food, let's just say that my first trip ever to a Chili's could be my last. Ann and I both got burgers and they were both terribly cooked and served with soggy fries. Carter wanted to treat us there and we were very happy that he wanted to be seen in public with us. I picked up the check though. All in all, we had a great time even if the food was miserable.

Post Hike with Carter and Jess at Chili's

Linguini with Clam Sauce

It felt good to get back in the kitchen yesterday, if only for a few minutes to make a late afternoon lunch of linguini with white clam sauc...