Monday, September 11, 2006

Way Down South … (Or As Close as I was Going to Get)

Saturday September 10th

I would like to say that Gary was memorable, or even that some part of my trip across Indiana was memorable, but it wasn’t. I stopped only once, for gas and Taco Bell, and the cute girl behind the counter was very talkative for a Taco Bell employee, wanting to know where I was from, what California was like, etc … it was a bit odd. And then back in the car and all of a sudden I was in Louisville, then central Kentucky. I had stopped off at the tourist information site (finally heard accents, first time on the whole trip) on my way to find out about whiskey distilleries, and went to a few but because it was Labor Day nothing was open, so I headed down to Mammoth Cave. Mammoth is a nice park, pretty large considering its just a cave, and after getting my ticket for the tour in the morning I wandered about, saw several sinkholes and some deer, and set up camp.

Next morning got to the cave entrance for the Violet City tour and was informed that the tour was not supposed to occur, that it had mistakenly been put on the schedule, but because there were so many of us they were going to do it anyways. The tour was small, about 18 people, and they gave every 3rd person a kerosene lantern and walked us down to the cave. The guides were two guys, one older, one younger with great senses of humor, throughout the tour one would walk off and try to scare us or make strange noises or something ( one point the old guy went too far and dressed up in a sheet like a dead tuberculosis patient and almost gave the woman behind me a heart attack. She almost fell dropped the lantern and was not allowed to hold it or walk alone again .. it really wasn’t that scary …).

Mammoth cave is just that. Because most of the tour was by lantern light, the only time we really got a good idea of the dimensions was when the light would not reach the far wall of the room, but I can tell you the cave is huge. And rightly so, it is the largest, longest cave system in the world, more than 370 miles mapped so far. It has a history just about that long as well. At one point they performed, weddings and church services inside, in rooms called the altar and congregation halls. They also mined saltpeter during the war of 1812, saw a lot of the mining equipment still there. At one point, some doctor even had the crazy idea to treat tuberculosis patients by keeping them in a cold, dank place like the cave, but that apparently only lasted a year as most of the patients died.

The tunnel we walked along passed through about 3 miles of cave, and it was like a hike. We walked up and down (about 1000 feet of elevation change in smaller spurts) along a path made in the 1930’s by the CCC, through a single channel so large you could have driven a semi-through most of it. The walls, barely illuminated by the lanterns either shone white or black (where smoke had blackened them), and watching our shadows move was awesome. We went through a room where you felt like you were outside and could see stars on the ceiling, through rooms as big as a football field in diameter, under massive single granite slabs, and finally out past some wonderful cave formations to some waiting buses which whisked us back to the park headquarters.

I was kind of antsy after the tour, so I pretty much immediately took off for Tenessee, stopping only at Long John Silvers for probably the worst fast food I have ever eaten. I was supposed to get fish and chicken strips, but I got a plate with several flat or round fried objects that I honestly could not identify. Nauseated, I failed to finish the meal and sped down to the Great Smokie Mountain National Park. Sped is kind of a whistful term as I did not arrive until around 830 at night, again did not pay to get in (like once you pass the Mississippi you don’t have to pay for national parks) and set up camp in a drizzle. Everything was so wet I could not even start a fire with the dry timber I took from the unintelligible old man at the campground headquarters (his accent was so strong I actually did not pay until the next morning because I had no idea what he was talking about … I mean after all the places in the world that I have been, this is the first time I have literally been entirely unable to communicate with someone … I mean he was looking at me like I was speaking Mongolian or something), so I ate a power bar and some jerky and went to bed.

Woke up, paid for the campsite and the wood (the mans wife was slightly more intelligible) and headed up to Newfound Gap, stopping at a ranger station along the way to get my backcountry permit and reserve a spot at a shelter on the Applachian Trail. I decided to do an overnight from Newfound Gap up to the Ice Spring Shelter and back, about 13.6 miles, and since the max elevation was around 6000’, I thought it would be a piece of cake, despite the rangers warning that it would be a bit of a workout.

Henceforth, I will carefully listen to the rangers. I did start at around 5000’ and over the first 1.7 miles I was cruising, up around 900’, passing a number of people and feeling like a stud. Then I got to Sweet Heifer Creek and sent the next 3.7 miles going down around 3400’, on a trail that was barely there. It was overgrown with numerous grasses and at points had little streams flowing along it. It was beautiful, green everywhere, lots of maple and elm and hickory, almost like walking in a jungle. The forest was loud too, birds and wind and water combined to make a kind of constant rushing sound. I passed probably 8 or 9 mid-sized waterfalls, several of which I had to walk through, before I reached the end, the Kephart Shelter. And here, I headed up Dry Sluice Gap (anything but dry, with more trail streams and overgrown areas than on the way down) to Charlies Bunion on the Appalachian Trail.

And when I say up, I mean up, as I spent the next 5.2 miles walking back up the entire distance I had walked down plus another 200’ or so, getting back up to the Bunion around 530 in the afternoon, having walked straight and not stopped except to get out my water bottle for 5 hours of hard hiking. Super rough, but the view from the top, hundreds of black/gray mountain ridges stretching away as far as you could see, covered in trees one could barely identify, cloaked in a heavy blue mist that moved like someone was blowing lightly from each side in turn – wow. One of the most rewarding sights I have ever seen, especially because that was the top and from there it was a quick walk down to the shelter. I showed up dripping and exhausted, and found a mostly empty shelter, the only occupants being Brent and Kevin, policemen from just outside Indianapolis who had come up that morning. They were the first people I had seen in the last 9 miles and Brent looked at me and said, “Damn boy, you look like we felt an hour ago.”

I was worked. Just completely beat. I had salted out hours ago and my super-moisture wicking shirt was so saturated that I could ring it out and it would not even be dry the next day. I made up some fajitas and ate ravenously, set up for bed, strung my pack up on the pulley system the park places at every campsite (because you know, the park has the highest population density of black bears in the whole US and they have begun to just tear into packs regardless of the smell) and spent the next 3 or 4 hours shooting the shit with Brent and Kevin.

Great guys, turns out Kevin was just elected sheriff of his town and Brent was his campaign manager. So we discuss a range of topics from the GOP election school Kevin attended to chinamans gun stance (brought on by a discussion of toilets in China and the squatting technique – turns out Kevin was also a licensed firearms instructor) to the psyche of the deplorable folks that these two deal with on a regular basis (they had some hilarious stories that at the same time made my skin crawl). We eventually got onto politics and immediately it was obvious I was on the other end of the spectrum from these folks, but I just told them I was from California and it was all good. Despite our differences and the fact that they were as staunchly Republican as I am Democratic, they seemed to dislike Bush as much as I did.

Thinking about it, at several points in the trip, ordering food, asking a silly how-to or what about this question or anything, people would look at me funny and I would say, “I am from California”, and it would be all good. Almost like I could have sat down in a mall and started eating my shoes and then told confused onlookers that I was Californian and they would have understood completely.

I used to think that the public front was that the country was very right wing, that most people were reasonably in the center about a lot of issues, that California was maybe a bit left but pretty much where everyone was getting to in a few years. I AM A MORON. If I were made of silicon with eight legs, no eyes and just gigantic, feathery feelers and I said, “No, I am American. I am just from California”, no one would bat an eye. I mean, most of the country doesn’t even think about the things that I think are the most important to debate and forget about our relaxed attitude, calm demeanor, rolling accent, surfing, bikinis … we are the strange ones …

Anyway, these differences made for a memorable night of conversation, punctuated only by the occasional effort to kill some of the mice infesting our sleeping area. Great guys and we had a good time. They woke up early, around 630, and I got up soon after at around 7. The hike the day before had encompassed most of my trip, so I cruised the three miles out, stopping to ID trees and birds (mostly trees) I had been too tired to look at the day before. Back at the parking lot, I ate and moved on to see some waterfalls in the North Carolina side of the park. They were probably pretty spectacular when running full, but it was dry and I have seen a lot of amazing falls recently, so they were okay but nothing to write home about although the names, Tom Branch and Junket Whaley, were very interesting. Leaving the park, I drove back around to Tennessee and then up to Virginia on my way to Shenandoah, the last park on the trip.

On the way up to Shenandoah, I continue my efforts to reach Scott, who I have been calling since Madison but have not reached, because I am supposed to be spending the weekend with him in DC. After not reaching him for 10 days I am beginning to worry, but that worry recedes as I drive through rural Tennessee and Virginia, gawking at the beauty on the roadside. Even the national forests in the West aren’t as lush as the roadside vegetation here, so green its awesome. I get to the vicinity of Shenandoah around 7 at night, but don’t get into the park until 815, as the signage on the road does not tell you where the entrance to the park is, unlike every other park I have been to. Instead it gives an exit for Skyline Drive, the main road through the park, something not helpful to anyone visiting the park for the first time.

Despite my navigational impairments, I get to a campsite around 930, get out of the car to pay the campsite fee and am almost deafened by the cicadas and crickets. Its unbelievably loud, like thousands of peoples snapping and clucking all at the same time. Actually, it was kind of nice once I got used to it, and settling into camp I set up the tent made dinner and just listened. The moon was also full, I mean pregnant full, and there were crazy moonshadows everywhere. It was so bright I could read by moonlight. Just a tremendous setting.

I spent most of the next blissfully driving or walking through the park. Skline Drive is 105 miles long, two lanes, most of it up around 2500’ to 3500’ and weaves its ways through trees and mountains in the park like a piece of thread in a well made sweater. I drove the whole thing at around 25 mph, stopping to look at eagles, hawks, deer, all kinds of trees and an almost endless number of vistas with adjoining historical placards.

I took two hikes, a fabulous scramble over a granite ridge up to bear fence mountain, with fabulous 360° views of the park and a 6 mile walk down past Dark Hollow Falls (nice three tiered 70 footer), along Rose River to Rose River falls (50 foot single drop), up to Big Meadows and back to the car. The second hike was truly beautiful walk, almost entirely shaded passing through a forest of beech, elm and hemlock, which I spent a lot of time identifying. Its wet everywhere, with the same trail streams and overgrown sections I saw in the Smokies, but not as many. I saw a number of huge millipedes, lots of fish in the river, a 5 foot blacksnake and a number of deer.

Back in the car, I ate and slowly drove out of the park, eventually speeding up because I was getting a tad bored of the scenery. Incredibly beautiful but all very similar and after 30 or 40 turnouts a majestic forested vista onto a secluded valley doesn’t do it anymore. Anyway, on the way out I passed several cars blocking one lane, looking up at a black bear walking along the rocks above the road. Really cool but I could not stop because it would have blocked the whole road. A little bummed, I drove on, only to be stopped about 3 miles from the park exit by a black bear cub rolling off the hillside onto the road. Followed quickly by its mother and another cub, the family scurried across the road, and just as they were across, a third cub fell out of a tree onto the road and sprinted after its mother. Awesome.

Flush with this thrill I drive out of the park full of new optimism that I will get a hold of Scott and have a place to stay. Unfortunately I can’t get ahold of Scott or Michele and get desperate, calling anyone I know who knows them. After getting Micheles cell phone, which also did not work, from Dave, I finally call Colette, who tells me that Scott lost his cell phone charger two weeks ago so his phone is out of commission, and then he borrowed and lost Micheles cell phone so they have no cell phones and no phone numbers. But Colette lets me know they are expecting me, so with that knowledge I speed of to DC, weather a minor thunderstorm in Fairfax to welcome me to the East Coast, and get to Scott and Micheles in time for Shabbat dinner.

The weekend was fabulous, beds, showers, internet and a number of parties, turns out Scott and Michele are incredibly popular with the leaving town crowd, as we went to 4 goodbye parties on Saturday, as well as a wedding reception and an Aussie BBQ (tremendous lamb and paella). Leaving on Sunday, well fed after a great brunch, I made my way up to Philly and spent the night at Jess’s, eating cheesesteak at Pats and meeting Rob and his super-cool girl friend Lakshmi (sp?) for beers and quiz night in downtown Philly.

And the next morning I got up, said goodbye to Jess and rolled up the NJ Turnpike to New York. It took me about 2 hours to drive 150 miles to New York, and about 1.5 hours to drive 15 miles from the George Washington Bridge to Einstein and park. Welcome to New York my uncle says. Having said that, I barely noticed the traffic as crossing the George Washington Bridge, aside from being scary and hazardous, was incredibly cathartic. I mean, it was this massive undertaking and it was done. It was an incredible, slightly sad, mostly exultant feeling. What a ride.

And that was that … 8,646 miles, 1,937 pictures, 42 days, 21 states, provinces and districts, 20 national parks and monuments and enough memories to last forever. An unbelievable adventure, I am so happy that I was able to share it with all of you. Thanks so much to everyone who put me up, Dad & Peg, Dave & Em, Susan, Bruce, Amy and Abraham, Matt & Bonnie, David & Susan, Jon & Rachel, Scott & Michele and Jess, it was great to see all of you and I hope that you will all feel compelled to come visit in New York, you are all always most welcome. And a huge shout out to Ryan, Matt and Neal, who shared so much with me this trip and really made it possible, there is no way I would have made it six weeks by myself. And finally, thanks to my audience, I am not sure if any of you will read through far enough to get to this, but if you do, thanks it was wonderful and important to me to have people to write to … Hope to see you all in New York soon …

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