The parking area for the Chimney Tops trail in the Smokies is right near one of my very favorite road signs ever.
This time we got to the trail head nice and early (at about 7:30am) so we were the first car in the parking area. (By the time we got back from the hike, the parking area was completely full and there were lots of cars parked along the sides of the road nearby.)
The Chimney Tops isn’t the longest trail, as it is just over 5 miles roundtrip, but there is a heck of a lot of elevation change packed in those miles. Let’s just say that you start out in a bit of a valley and go up and up and up until you are on the bare rock ridge high above said valley.
It is one of our favorite trails.
The park service has done a lot of work improving this trail since we were here last. The drainage is better, so it is not nearly as slick as it used to be. And in a lot of the “more challenging sections” they have added in steps.
The stairs are not there to coddle you. (Well, okay, they coddle you a little…) You need the stairs. This is a pretty steep section.
You could really tell the parts of the trail that the park service had not yet gotten around to improving.
The views at the top are spectacular, because you are right out on a rock outcropping on the ridge, high above the rest of the world. We have sat on the top before and watched hawks flying below us.
The trail ends on a spire of rock, and to get to the very end of the trail you need to scramble up a fairly steep rock face to the flat section right at the top. The rock was pretty slick that morning, so we didn’t go quite all of the way to the top, and contented ourselves with reaching a nice little seat about 20 feet or so from the summit.
Great views. You are on top of the world.
The first morning in the Smokies we hiked the Alum Cave trail. We got to the trailhead at what we thought was a fairly early hour… at about 8:30am (after a leisurely camp breakfast of hot coffee and cold pastries) and the parking area at the trailhead was already completely full. Completely. We ended up parking about 20 yards away from the parking area at the side of the road, along with the rest of the spillover vehicles.
Granted, a lot of the cars were covered in a thick coat of frost, and had obviously been there overnight. Those folks had undoubtedly started out the previous day for Mount LeConte, which is about a two-day roundtrip hike, with an overnight at up at the top. (There are actually a few primitive cabins at the top of Mount LeConte that you can reserve for overnight trips.)
We have been on this trail before, the first time that we went to the Smokies. That first time, it was a little later in the year and was already cool enough and snowy enough that as we got into the higher elevations on the trail, we made little snowmen and left them at the sides of the trail. There was snow on the trail again this year, but not nearly as much.
The first mile-and-a-half or so of the trail is through pretty thick forest along a good-sized stream. After you pass through Arch Rock, you start to go up in elevation a lot faster, and soon break out of the forest and into some pretty spectacular scenery and mountain views.
On the way down, we encountered a couple with some small kids at Arch Rock, who wanted to know if that “was it”… if they had reached Alum Cave. They were slightly disheartened to be informed that Alum Cave was still a couple of miles away.
Alum Cave isn’t really a cave, so much as it is a bluff… a huge, deep overhang on the trail where the Confederate army mined alum and saltpeter for gunpowder during the Civil War.
If you stay on the trail past Alum Cave, you will continue on several miles further to the Rainbow Falls Trail, and on a little further to the top of Mount LeConte.
It is a beautiful trail in the fall, with the spectacular vistas and the gorgeous leaf color.
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a favorite of John and myself. Not least because it is the most easily accessible from Dayton, OH, requiring only (only!) a 6-7 hour drive instead of a day long marathon involving driving, flights, and airport layovers (or a really really long drive).
We have been to the Smokies a couple of times, and always at the tail end of the season, around Halloween, when the park is quieter and there is already snow up at the top on Clingman’s Dome.
This year, I had just made campground reservations for our trip when the government shutdown happened and a whole lot of stuff, including the national parks closed for business. Really closed – as in even the park websites were shut down and off line. We had just started to discuss possible alternate vacation plans (Hocking Hills State Park? Part of the historic bourbon trail down in Kentucky?) when the government reopened, allowing up to take our vacation as planned.
About 1.5 hours into our drive down we hit car troubles… heading down 75 we heard a sudden klunk! and then the engine noise got about 10X louder. Some part of the exhaust system had dropped out. We were obviously still able to drive just fine… but the car was temporarily a rolling noise and environmental violation, and I cringed a little every time we got in it and started it up. (Note: the car is now fixed.)
Driving in to the park through Pigeon Forge And Gatlinburg is always … interesting. Mostly because of the extreme tackiness and hokeyness of just about everything. There is a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” something on just about every corner in Gatlinburg. John and I call this Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg stretch the Honkey Tonk Vegas or Redneck Vegas. It is Vegas without the desert and without the veneer of respectability. It does have shows, though, if you want to think of something like “Lumberjack Fued” as a show.
As soon as we got to the campground and checked in, we did what we have always done – headed up top. To Newfound Gap and Clingman’s Dome to see the views and maybe catch the sunset. (According to the ranger who checked us in at the campground, the last stretch of road up to the top had been closed that morning because of overnight accumulations of ice and snow)
We have never seen it as crowded up at the top as it was then. Never. We made our way up to the parking area near the top at idling speed and were seriously worried for a little bit that we would not be able to find a spot to park, it was that bad. Either there were a lot of people at the park that weekend taking vacations that had been delayed by the shutdown (a possibility) or there were a lot of people there in whom the shutdown sparked a desire to show their patriotism by visiting a national park (also a possibility). Either way. More people then we have ever seen at the park at the tail end of the fall season.
Up at the top, there is a 1/2 mile trail to a fire tower, where the views are even more impressive. This is probably one of the toughest trails in the park, especially if you have just gotten out of the car after a 6+ hour drive. It may be short, but it is very steep. Hard on your knees, ankles, and just about everything else, especially when the trail is slick with packed snow and some ice. We started on the trail just in time to stand aside so that an ambulance from the Cherokee Nation (other side of the mountains) could come down the trail. Near the top, we found a ranger who was warning people off to the side of the path because of a large patch of black ice that spread several yards down the center of the path. (We guessed that the ambulance had been there, and the ranger was there, because someone had fallen and hurt themselves on the ice.)
In years past, we have had to physically drag ourselves up the ramp, hand-over-hand on the railing, because the ramp was so covered with ice. It wasn’t as bad as that this year, but the trees and other vegetation around the tower had a several-inches-thick coating of packed on snow.
It goes without saying that it was cold up there. I had on a sweater, a fleece over that, a neoprene coat over the fleece, a knit hat, and a scarf, and was still a bit chilly. The wind up at the top never stops blowing, and it just cuts right through you.
By the time we were done with Clingman’s Dome, Newfound Gap, had done some grocery shopping for camp breakfasts and trail lunches, had had dinner, and were (finally) returning to camp it was after dark. We set up the tent by flashlight. Fortunately it was just the small backpacking tent (the old, green, Coleman boyscout tent having gone to the campground in the sky after Pennsic) so it went up pretty quickly and easily.
John and I had some Ayinger Celebrator Doppelbock last night because there is something to celebrate.
The abandoned house next door is (we assume) finally sold. As of this point, the house has stood empty for two winters and three summers, and was up to be sold in a sheriff’s auction yesterday at 10am.
The people who used to live there were a perfectly nice older couple. We saw him the most often. Whenever he was out in the yard and we were out in the yard, his two fat, fluffy, little white dogs would run over to say hi, and he would follow them. He complimented us on our garden and our work on the deck, we chatted about gardening and yard work and commiserated about the depredations of the deer and rabbits, and he lent us a post-hole digger one time. Good neighbors. Then he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died fairly shortly after. His widow stayed in the house for a little longer, but the house had been mortgaged to the hilt to support his business (making and selling organic salsa or pasta sauce or something like that) and she was having trouble keeping up, and then the main line to the house broke and that was the last straw, since she couldn’t afford to fix it. (She shared all of this with us when we happened to meet in the yard one early spring day, after the fat little dogs had run over to us to say hi, as usual.) So she just walked away. She took what she wanted, and simply left all of the rest. Trinkets, clothes, pots and pans, holiday decorations… everything. (You can see all of the left-behind debris through the windows, and one time when an adjuster from the bank was over, we rather boldly followed her inside to check things out.) All in all a rather sad story. I occasionally wonder what happened to her, and those two dogs.
Anyway, the house presumably has an owner now. And one day, hopefully soon, we will come home and there will be a dumpster in the driveway so that the new owners can clean it out. It needs cleaning out. And a new roof, a new main line, and significant siding repair. And eventually, either someone will move in, or it will be sold again.
But the important thing is that it is no longer an empty, abandoned, house.
… summer, that is. Hi there, summer is gone, it’s fall, and where did the last three months go anyway?
Work has been very busy. Stuff at home has been very busy. It feels like I haven’t really sat back and relaxed enough to appreciate the summer.
House and garden
The two big trees in our front yard really were hit hard by last year’s drought, so in June John decided to take down all of the dead branches in order to give them as good a chance at recovering as we could give them. “All of the dead branches” turned out to be a lot of branches indeed… both trees lost a significant portion of their canopies, and I am still getting used to the fact that the front yard is much less shaded then it used to be.
The garden did great…is still doing great. The tomatoes are almost done at this point, but I am not going to complain too much, given that we have been pulling 10-15 pounds of tomatoes a week out of the garden since mid-July. The green peppers, banana peppers, jalapeno peppers, and eggplants are still going strong, however. We will probably be getting peppers and eggplants for at least another month. The only thing that we really botched with this year’s garden was the plant spacing. It is really difficult to move around in the garden, as the plants have all grown all over each other.
For John’s birthday weekend (this year was the big 42) we went to Cedar Point for a couple of days. We had been talking idly about wanting to go to Cedar Point for a while, and decided that it was finally time to stop talking about going and actually go.
I can remember staying at the Breakers when my family went to Cedar Point for a vacation when I was little, and John and I stayed there when we went this summer. Being right in the park, it was really convenient, and the early admission for hotel guests was also nice.
Going when we did – right after the 4th of July holiday weekend – was a good call, because the park was not quite as crowded as it might otherwise have been. I think that the longest that we ever waited in a line was maybe 45 minutes, the first time that we went on the Millennium Force. Most of the time we were in line less than 10 minutes. It was great. It was also a touch rainy in the evenings… a couple of quick bursts of rain here and there, but not enough to get us to go back to the hotel. However, the rollercoasters (and a couple of other rides) don’t run when it is raining… they stop wile it is raining and once it stops, they run a test through to make sure that the tracks and brakes are safe, and then resume. So the bursts of rain were great for clearing out the crowds and eliminating the lines in the evenings.
We went on every ride at the park. (Seriously, we had a checklist.) Many of the rides, especially the rollercoasters, we went on multiple times. Okay, we went on all of the rides except the kiddy rides and that one ride that is basically just pretend driving a model-T car around a fixed track.
It was an awesome vacation. Something we should have done a long time ago. Now we need to go to King’s Island (down near Cincinnati) for comparison. And more rollercoasters.
It has been almost seven months since Merlin died, and almost five months since we adopted Vena.
You can tell when Vena is really enjoying being petted, because her eyes roll back a little bit, her nose starts to run, and she starts to drool. It is simultaneously adorable and kind of disgusting. She doesn’t purr very loudly, not like Merlin (Merlin’s purr was like an idling diesel engine) but she loves attention.
She is getting slowly cuddlier, and if I am lounging on the couch reading or watching TV she doesn’t need much encouragement to jump up into my lap. It does take her a little while to calm down and get settled once she is there, though. And god help you if you try to hold a book with one hand and pet her with the other. She doesn’t appreciate the divided attention, and has been known to bite at the book (or tablet or phone) in order to ensure that all attention is on her. Once she is settled, though, she doesn’t mind if you read while she naps on your lap.
She is still a bit wary and shy around John, and won’t stay on my lap if he enters the room of joins me on the couch. It will just take time.
It is edging into the hottest part of summer here, with a lot of high temperatures, blazing sun, and thick, heavy air. We have capitulated to the heat and humidity and turned on the A/C. Because of science (hot air rises!) the upstairs of the house has always been a good deal warmer than the downstairs despite the A/C. Up until recently, we tried to solve that problem by laying a box fan on its back in the front hall, blowing straight up the 2-story foyer/stairwell in an effort to keep the cooler air circulating.
It worked, but it didn’t look all that great to have the box fan in the middle of the front hall, plus it was a tripping hazard.
So we decided to replace the chandelier that hung in the front hall with a ceiling fan.
We had to rent some scaffolding from Home Depot for the job, as our ladder just wasn’t up to the job.
It took a bit longer than we expected. Altogether it took more than nine hours – all day Saturday – and we returned the scaffolding the next morning.
But it works, and looks a lot better than the box fan did.
One of the lights has already blown out, though.
So, we put in the garden over a month ago, and I am just now getting around to talking about it…
We did the whole “start stuff from seeds” thing again, and in general it worked out a lot better this year than last year. Mostly because we figured out why everything died a couple of days after we planted it last year – sunburn. All of the seedlings last year got sunburned to death because we took them out of the basement grow chamber and put them right out into the sun without giving them any time to acclimate and toughen up a bit. So this year before we planted the seedlings we spent a week getting them used to sunlight by putting the trays on the back porch for a couple of hours at a time. And then after we planted them, we rigged up sunshades out of some tarps, and left those up for a week or so.
We still lost some plants, but not to sunburn. A day or two after we planted them, something – probably a rabbit – come along and bit the tops off of every single green pepper, half of the hot peppers, and half of the eggplants. So we had to go to Home Depot and Loews for seedlings to replace the green peppers and eggplants. We still had some hot pepper seedlings in the starter trays, so we used those to replace the ones that got eaten. And then we put down rabbit and deer deterrent around the garden. We haven’t had any problems since then, though I have seen plenty of rabbits around the neighborhood.
We had to replace a couple of tomato plants as well, because some of the seedlings got washed away in some torrential downpours just after we planted them. Since then we have found a lot of tomato “volunteers” (tomato seedlings that we didn’t deliberately plant, that just grew from remnants of last year’s tomato crop) that we have been slowly replanting into the tomato cages.
So we ended up with about 3/5 of the garden being leftovers from last year and stuff that we started from seeds, and about 2/5 seedlings that we bought from Home Depot or Loews. Not bad. And the stuff that we started from seeds is finally catching up to the greenhouse stuff.
We are looking forward to the eventual harvest. Hopefully we will start to get stuff in about a month.
I am 37 years old today.
I don’t feel 37, but I don’t know how old I feel either. If you are only as old as you feel, how do you know how old you feel? Rhetorical question…
Anyway, I am not at work today. I have a personal policy of never going to work on my birthday unless it is completely unavoidable, and this policy has never steered me wrong. (I have tomorrow off as well, since it didn’t make much sense to take a Thursday off and then go back in to the office just for Friday.)
John and I celebrated my birthday by going out to dinner last night at The Oakwood Club, which is another one of Dayton’s classic supper clubs/steakhouses. It was extremely good. When comparing it to The Pine Club (as was inevitable) I think that it works out to a draw. The atmosphere at both places was excellent – lots of burgundy leather and dark wood. No clear winners there. The food at The Pine Club is slightly better … or maybe that is just because we both love their bone-in rib-eye so much and The Oakwood Club didn’t even have rib-eye on the menu. However, The Oakwood Club gets the edge in the convenience factor, as they actually take reservations and credit cards, while The Pine Club still (at this point in the 21st century) accepts neither.
John also made me a pineapple upside-down cake. We had that for dessert (along with pineapple martinis) for dessert when we got back from the restaurant.
My plans for today are pretty simple… I do have a few things on my to-do list… an errand or two I must run, and an appointment to get my hair cut. But I am also going to go out to the arboretum with my camera. And then spend a substantial chunk of time on the back deck with a book.
That’s a pretty full schedule. So I suppose that I had best get on with it.
This is Ravenna.
She came to us with that name and I think that we will keep it, but as it is a pretty big name for a little cat, we call her “Vena”, or just “Baby Girl”, for short.
And she is practically a baby, at just over a year old. The rescue group that we adopted her from think that her mom was dumped while she was pregnant (and I don’t really want to think about what kind of terrible person would dump a mother cat and tiny newborn kittens) and they were all found and brought to the rescue when Vena and her siblings were about a couple of weeks old.
- The little plastic ring that you get on milk and juice jugs.
- A string on a stick
- The milk-jug-ring combined with the string on a stick. This is the best cat toy ever.
- The very top perch of the cat tree
- Kitty treats
- Did I mention food?
She is seriously food motivated, and if you are preparing food or eating something, then she wants to share. At least until she figures out if what you have is something she likes or not. This has included pasta, pasta sauce, butternut squash soup, bacon, cheese, bread, crackers (with and without spread) salmon, chickpeas, spinach, rice, barbeque pork… and most of what she tries, she likes. According to the vet, although she is in good health and up-to-date on all shots, she is underweight, so we are pretty much letting her eat whatever she wants, and as much of it (within reason) as she wants.
- Being picked up
- Being pursued. She prefers to come to you, she isn’t always comfortable being approached
- Any cat toy that we spend money on. As opposed to milk jug rings, crumpled bits of scrap paper, hair ties, and the pen that I am trying to write with. You would think that we would have learned this particular lesson with Percival
- Catnip. What the hell, kitty? I thought that all cats went gaga for the ‘nip
- Having her feet touched. Sorry little girl, but you are going to have to get used to us handling your feet and clipping your nails
She follows me from room to room a lot. When I come home, she runs up to the door to great me.
She has a little bit of separation anxiety, in that if I am at home, she doesn’t like to be separated from me, and closed doors between me and her seem to stress her out. If I go to the bathroom or go to take a shower, she is guaranteed to be sitting right outside the door waiting for me to emerge.
She sleeps on the bed with us, but waits until after we are asleep to join us.
She is not very cuddly yet. She will jump in my lap and demand attention by head-butting whatever I happen to be holding, and shoving her head under my hand. But she is still pretty skittish and is not quite at the point where she is relaxed enough to just curl up in my lap for long periods of time. I can, however, occasionally persuade her to sit on my lap if it is mid-afternoon on a weekend, and no one else is around. (She doesn’t like to stay on my lap if John joins me on the couch.)
She and Percival get along just fine.
She is doing a good job of settling in and getting used to us. She’s a good little girl.
She is a very good girl, and a little sweetie… but she doesn’t make me miss Merlin any less. I still miss Merlin a lot, every day. And Vena is in no way a replacement for Merlin. She is just herself, and that’s good enough.
John and I aren’t observant… we don’t observe Easter (or any other religious holiday), but we do celebrate it. If a holiday has delicious food associated with it, then we will celebrate it. It is all about the delicious food.
We are having roast turkey for dinner. Not just because roast turkey with my Grandma’s stuffing and roaster vegetables is a delicious meal, but also because we are out of stock. We intend to render down the carcass at the end of the day and replenish our supply. Let me tell you… home-made turkey stock is way richer and more flavorful than the best chicken stock.
Anyway, we have a 20 pound turkey. For the two of us. This is the biggest that we have ever had. It turns out that if it is not Thanksgiving or Christmas, there isn’t much of a selection available in the turkey bin at the grocery store, and this bird was the smallest that they had available. It barely fits into our roaster. We will be eating off of this bird for days – turkey pot pie, turkey quesadillas, curried turkey, turkey noodle soup… Yum.
Dessert will be coconut bread.
There are no eggs (dyed, hard-boiled, or otherwise) or Easter candy (other than one fancy bar of Vosges salted bacon and milk chocolate). We just weren’t feeling the eggs or excessive sweetness today.
Coconut Bread Recipe
- 2 large eggs
- 1 1/4 cups milk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon table salt
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 5 ounces sweetened flaked coconut (about 1 1/2 cups)
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted or melted and browned, if desired
- Vegetable oil or nonstick cooking spray for baking pan
Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a small bowl, whisk together eggs, milk and vanilla.
In a medium bowl, sift together flour, salt, baking powder and cinnamon. Add sugar and coconut, and stir to mix. Make a well in the center, and pour in egg mixture, then stir wet and dry ingredients together until just combined. Add butter, and stir until just smooth — be careful not to overmix.
Butter and flour a 9×5-inch loaf pan, or coat it with a nonstick spray. Spread batter in pan and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, anywhere from 1 to 1 1/4 hours. Cool in pan five minutes, before turning out onto a cooling rack.