Sunday, June 23, 2013

Spence Field

Amy and I hiked to Spence Field on Wednesday, June 19th, two days after our Gregory Bald hike. Amy scheduled the day in between as a work-day to write descriptions for the book-fortunately for us, this was the only day that the storms never let up, and we got a lot a work done. Not to mention, a day of rest from the strenuous hike to Gregory Bald was good for both of us.

We each got up around 9 am, had a quick breakfast, and packed our bags for the hike. The sky showed no signs that it would rain today, subduing my regular worry that the trip might have to be postponed. The trailhead for the Spence Field hike, like the Gregory Bald hike, was located in the Cades Cove area. The hike up to Spence Field would be a 5.3 mile 2,941 foot ascent. Neither of us had ever done this hike, and I had little idea of what to expect.

Spence Field is different from Andrews and Gregory Bald in that it hasn’t been maintained by the National Park Service. The decision to not actively maintain Spence Field may result from the general consensus that Spence Field is not a naturally occurring Bald. The National Park Service states that it was probably cleared in the late 19th century by the grandfather of Asa Sparks and used as a field for grazing.1 We suspected that without grazing or maintenance for the past 80 years, Spence Field would probably not be as open as Gregory or Andrews. We were still curious to explore the extent to which trees and shrubbery had invaded the grassy Bald.

When we arrived at the trailhead, my phone read 10:30 am. Happy to get an earlier start than we had been able to with Gregory, we started the hike with high hopes.

We almost immediately came across a group of three fly fishermen and realized that the trail meandered alongside a creek. From that point on, I couldn’t help but notice all of the great fishing holes tucked away in pockets of the stream, probably teeming with hungry trout. At several points along the way, we had to cross the creek by means of wooden footbridges. These first two miles of the hike turned out to be extremely peaceful-very little climb, shade from the forest canopy, and the sounds of cascading water.

We stopped to eat lunch a little over halfway into the hike. At this point, the trail had departed from the river and started a slightly steeper ascent up the mountain. We found two first-class seats on a log next to a little waterfall coming out of the mountain. I had packed the same lunch I had packed for Gregory, with the exception of one new ingredient that I had previously overlooked in the refrigerator-this time it was a turkey, bacon, pepperoni sandwich and pistachios.
Although we didn’t know it at the time, we had timed our lunch break perfectly because we were about to begin what would be over a 1,000 foot climb packed into 1.7 miles. Despite the vigorousness of this section, it was very unique. Rhododendron plants formed a complete tunnel over our heads. At some places, the trail was a remarkable 5 or 6 feet below the rest of the ground, giving it a sunken-in appearance; I could turn my head to the side and would be looking straight into a wall of earth. Some have attributed this phenomenon to the culminating effects of the years when cattle were driven up this trail to graze on Spence Field.
The sides of the trail extend over Amy's head
We passed two more voyagers, but unlike us, they were traveling on horseback. Amy and I were envious. The whole trail could be done on horseback. I added it to my bucket list, along with doing the Cades Cove loop on bicycle.

Soon after our horseback encounter, we came upon another interesting relic: a natural mortar and pestle carved into a rock. We wondered if it was once used by herders to grind up food on their way to the top of Spence Field. I took time to grind up a small rock, and we were on our way again.

We stopped several times to catch our breath on the final push to the top. I thought it was more strenuous than the hike to Gregory Bald, but maybe this was just an illusion. Either way, they came pretty close. We finally reached the Appalachian Trail and knew we had arrived. It was 3 o’clock. Spence Field was just a tenth of the mile to the right. Thank God.

At first, it was hard to tell if we had reached it or not. We saw grass and blue sky, but we were surrounded by trees and did not walk out onto a spectacular view as we had on previous Balds. I circled the site of what we expected to be Spence Field, making sure we had not missed any hidden wonders. After all, the grass spanned a large area and was scattered with trees, so it was hard to tell where it ended. After exploring the entire Bald, we realized that we were definitely on Spence Field. The trees and shrubs had just taken over. There were, however, remnants of what it may have been like 100 years ago: there was soft grass that blanketed the entire summit, flame azaleas and mountain laurels sparkled the ecotone, and several places were still relatively open from trees.

I laid down in a patch of grass and I took a deep breath. I had been a little disappointed at first, but now that I had sufficiently explored, the beauty of this place was finally starting to soak in. I had never seen a forest with a vast carpet of grass, such as this. It was almost like what you would see in a fairytale. The sun was shining and a breeze was blowing. The grass was so soft. If I was a deer, this would be my home. There were a ton of hikers on the AT, all taking time to admire this unique place. The hike up here was definitely worth it, at least for right now.

We spent an hour relaxing on the Bald and snacking on trailmix before heading back. We figured it would take about two and half hours. That was pretty accurate. We made good time, only stopping once for a quick rest. It was so much easier hiking down than up, just as it had been for Gregory. We got back to the car at 7:45 pm, our legs unwilling to go any farther.

We had dinner at a place called Riverside Café, and I had a really good barbecue sandwich. I’ve got to say that I was beyond impressed with every place we ate at in Townsend.  For a small town with only one stoplight, they had mastered good southern cooking. The best came last: the next morning on our way out, we stopped at Elvira’s Café for breakfast. They brought me out the most delicious, succulent, tasty chicken biscuit that I could have ever dreamed of, soaked in a honey-based sauce.

My experiences this week were the best I could have hoped for. I’m extremely fortunate to be part of this project and look forward to the next trip, which will be in mid-July. Until then, Amy and I will be working on trail descriptions, maps, summaries, etc. for the hiking guide.

1 "History of the Grassy Balds in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park." Great     Smoky Mountains. National Park Service, 7 Mar. 2009. Web. 23 June 2013. <>

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Gregory Bald

Three days ago, on June 17th, Amy and I did the hike up to Gregory Bald. We had arrived the night before and were staying in Townsend, TN near the western part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We planned to stay until Thursday and do both the Gregory Bald and Spence Field hikes.
On top of Gregory

Gregory Bald is a one of the two grassy Balds maintained by the Park Service (via mowing, cutting, and burning). It is theorized to be a natural Bald dating back to the Pleistocene era, when it would have been grazed by megaherbivores. It was named after Russell Gregory, one of the settlers of Cades Cove who used the Bald as a grazing ground for cattle in the 1800s. Today, Gregory Bald is world renowned for its brilliant display of flame azaleas in late June. We were hoping to be just in time for this.

Before I begin the story of our Gregory Bald hike, I must say that it was probably one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Put together, everything that happened yesterday was so intense, so beautiful, and so extraordinarily perfect in space and time that I think anyone who had experienced it would find it impossible not to believe in a God.

We got up around 7am and had breakfast. It was pouring outside, but the forecast showed signs that it might pass as the day went on. I went back to bed and got up again around 9:30. It was still pouring. I sat on the porch and read a book, waiting for the rain to pass. It completely stopped around 11, and Amy and I hurriedly packed our stuff and got into the car (so quickly I guess that when we got back later that night we realized we had left all the lights on).

I realized I had packed two different shoes (hard to tell)
Cades Cove
The Gregory Bald trailhead is located at the end of the Cades Cove scenic loop. The loop is open to bikers, and is a very popular destination for families. We saw deer, turkeys, and horses on our drive.

When we arrived at the trailhead leading to Gregory Bald, the rain was coming down in buckets again. It was about 12:30. We put on our rain ponchos, tucked away our phones in a waterproof bag, and prepared for what was about to come. The trail would be a 5.5 mile 3020 foot climb to the top.  

It rained for the first mile of the hike, but the rain surprisingly wasn’t as unpleasant as we had anticipated. The large trees offered a lot of protection and sort of gave it a Jurassic Park-like atmosphere. Nevertheless, we were still happy when the clouds started to clear and it stopped raining. We were finally able to start taking pictures of the captivating forest!

The trail meandered alongside a stream that was flowing very fast from the recent rain. We stopped for lunch at a place where a footbridge crossed the stream. I had a delicious turkey-bacon sandwich and pistachios that I had packed before we left. It was a rewarding break. The moisture brought out an abundance of frogs, salamanders, and snails.

After we crossed the bridge, the intense climb began. The terrain gradually got steeper, and the farther we went, the more frequently we had to stop to catch our breath. We left the noise of the river and entered a relatively quiet section of forest; the only sounds left were our footsteps and the songs of the birds.

Without much warning, the trail broke out of the forest into a sunny “heath-like” ecosystem, rich with mountain laurel and our first expansive views. It was here that, as we were admiring the views, Amy and I caught a glimpse of the most beautiful bluebird either of us had ever seen. It was such a ripe blue-almost like the vibrant blue you would see on a crayon, just brighter-so different from any of the paler-colored bluebirds I was used to. We later learned, after reading an article about Gregory Bald, that it actually wasn’t a bluebird. It was an indigo bunting.  We confirmed this by looking up pictures and matching with our memories. This short trail segment through the sunny opening, combined with the glorious indigo bunting sighting, definitely gave us an extra mental boost to continue up the mountain.

The rest of the hike felt like a continuous ascent to the top. We stopped several times along the way to take pictures; we saw lots of grasshoppers, a snake, and a tree that had a smiley face on it.

Look closely
The last half-mile of the hike was probably the most exhilarating. We knew we were very close to the top, and I was just growing in anticipation with every step. The sensation of stepping out onto Andrews Bald had been beyond description-what would Gregory be like? Finally, I reached the edge of the forest where I could see a grassy opening with sunrays coming down. I decided to wait for Amy to catch up before I stepped out onto the Bald-she wasn’t far behind. While I was waiting, I began to mark a waypoint on the GPS to mark the end of the hike when I heard rustling in the forest.  I quickly turned around and my heart skipped a beat when I saw a large doe standing just 5 feet away. My first thought was that it didn’t see me and that it might charge if I made a move. I stood still and watched it as it came towards me, out of the forest and into the grassy area just ahead. Two more doe followed. I let my guard down, realizing that it wasn’t dangerous; they were just coming out for a snack. Still, I had never been so close to wild deer in my life. Moreover, I had never seen such beautiful and healthy deer. Their coats were spotless and their eyes and faces had human-like appearances. At this point I knew they could see me, and it almost felt as if they knew I was watching them and wanted me to follow. I honestly think they had some sort of spiritual significance-it’s too extraordinary to explain in any other way.

Amy arrived and we carefully approached them, still eager to get out onto the Bald. Five feet seemed to be the threshold-whenever we got this close they would calmly walk until the distance was made up, and then they would continue eating. We crept forward and they would do the same. It was as if they were leading us onto the Bald. We broke out into the Bald to a wonderful maze of vibrant flame azaleas. The deer disappeared into the bushes and we went on to explore the flowers, ecstatic.  This surpassed any of my previous expectations. Gregory Bald is a research haven for botanists and biologists because of its perplexing diversity of flame azalea species. Only pictures come close to truly conveying the beauty.

After about 10 minutes of exploring the meadow of flame azaleas we stumbled upon the most spectacular and rewarding view of the entire hike. We sat down in the grass to a view that overlooked Cade’s Cove to the north. Beyond, stretched miles of mountain ranges, and above floated large puffy clouds. Not long after we had been sitting down, we were treated to another amazing and thought-provoking experience. The three deer that had greeted us at the opening of the Bald reappeared out of the bushes, and walked right up to us, posing for the best picture of the day.

View of Cades Cove

We spent about 30 more minutes exploring the Bald and taking it all in before heading back down. It was already 6:30 and we wanted to get down before dark. We figured it would be a 2 and a half hour hike back to the car. The hike back was much faster and less grueling. We stopped only a couple of times to rest. By the time we had made it back to the stream it was already pretty dark. Within minutes we started seeing fireflies. Before long it turned into a stunning show. I have never seen so many fireflies in my life. What a great experience. The timing of everything today could not have been any more perfect.

We made it back to the car just in time- any later and it would have been too dark for comfort. It was exactly 9 o’clock. It felt so good to sit down. We rolled down the windows and made our way out of Cades Cove, with satisfaction and food dominating my mind. The day wasn’t over yet, though. Right after we left Cades Cove, an animal came onto the road into the headlights. It was a coyote. It stood right in front of us for a good 15 seconds before running into the forest-unbelievable.

We stopped to eat at a place on the side of the road that looked kind of like a Cookout. We walked up and ordered-I got a cheeseburger and ice cream. Country music was playing on the stereo, there was a God Bless the USA sign out front, and the locals were all talking, laughing, and just happy to be there. It was a great place to be, but was somehow even better after a day like today.

I will have the Spence Field blog posted within the next day or two! Feel free to leave comments and let me know what you think. 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Max Patch

            I woke up to rain pounding on my hotel window Sunday morning, June 2. The weather forecast had called for scattered thunderstorms all day, but I still felt a little disappointed to see that it might actually happen. I got ready, then met with Amy at Dunkin’ Donuts to get breakfast and discuss plans.
            Amy told me that she had gotten a call late last night that her mother had fallen and been taken to the hospital. Fortunately, there were no serious injuries, but under the circumstances Amy needed to go back today and see her. Despite this, we were able to take time at breakfast to make a game plan for the next couple weeks.
            By the time we finished breakfast, the rain had lessened to a light drizzle. We decided that if I wanted, I could do Max Patch Bald today before I left since it was the shortest of the 3 hikes that we had planned for this trip (a 1.4 mile loop). The hike, located in Pisgah National Forest, was only an hour drive west of where we were staying in Asheville. The weather app on my phone showed a lower chance of thunderstorms than previously expected. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.
            We packed up, checked out of our rooms, Amy left for Columbia, and I left for Max Patch Mountain. About 48 minutes into the drive, the exit off of I-40 turned into a dirt road. According to the directions, it would be a 6.2 mile steady climb up this road to the top of the mountain. 6.2 miles doesn’t sound like a lot, but on the dirt road it was much longer than I anticipated. With each unmarked turn or branch in the road, my small hope that I was going the right way was increasingly diminished. Moreover, about halfway up the mountain (but at the time I thought I should have been almost at the top) it started to thunder and lighting. I checked my phone. No service. I couldn’t remember if you could be struck by lighting while inside of a car, but I couldn’t ask Siri because I had no phone coverage. Nobody else had passed me on the road, so I felt like I was the only person on the mountain. The only thing that kept me going was the idea that I had to be close to the top.
            Sure enough, after about ten more minutes I arrived to an opening at the top and pulled into a parking lot. Thankfully, there were other cars in the parking lot and a reassuring Max Patch sign. I gave it ten minutes without hearing any thunder and decided to get out and do the hike. It was still pouring down rain, but I didn’t care at this point. I put on a rain poncho to protect my phone and notebook. The GPS was waterproof.  

            I started the 1.4 mile loop, just happy to finally be there and hiking. The trail quickly entered a forest on the margin of the Bald, which helped shield the rain. I came across a bright orange salamander, probably enjoying the wet day.

The forest opened up back into the bald, and I hiked up to the summit. At this point the rain had climaxed to a torrential downpour, so I was not able to take many pictures without my phone getting soaked. I continued across the Bald, to the point where the trail merged with the AT. I actually passed two hikers on the AT, and we all exchanged laughs, at each other and at ourselves for being crazy enough to be out here in this weather. I continued the hike back down to the car, managing to take a picture every now and then without my phone getting too wet. I guess I was satisfied-I now had the GPS tracks, trail notes, and a few decent pictures.

The very second that I opened the door to my car, the rain stopped. Okay, now I had to go back. The sky was opening up, and I would be able to get some good pictures. I took off the rain poncho and started to backtrack up the loop that I had just completed, right up to the top of Max Patch Bald. This experience was somehow completely different than before. This time, I saw a ton of wildflowers, a dead field mouse, and views that I didn’t know were possible.

I could literally turn 360° at the top of the mountain and see for miles in every direction. There were two layers of clouds, one above me and one below me. In between, I could see everything. It was absolutely beautiful. I felt like I was looking down from heaven. Only pictures can describe.

After about 40 minutes of admiring the views and feeling on top of the world, I headed  back. Amazingly, right when I got back to the car it started raining again. I started the 4 hour drive back to Greensboro without regrets. The next trip is planned to start on June 15th, so the next blog will pick up there.