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

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