Saturday, April 27, 2013

Getting Started

Happy Saturday everyone!  For those of you that don't come lurking by until Monday, well, I hope you had a good weekend. Even though it's not even 10 am on Saturday morning as I write this, I'm gonna go out on a limb and say I had a good one.

It's a rainy, drizzly, overcast day out here in the woods of Tennessee. I have to give a shout out to my backpacking buddies from last weekend--a few of them are out again this weekend, getting soaked.  I would've joined them, but they are way out east on another adventure, and not going to get back until tomorrow afternoon.  But some family is in town for the weekend, and about twenty of us are going out to dinner together this evening, so I have that obligation to attend to.

I even thought of going on a short day hike around here today, and I still might, only if the rain lets up though, because I left my rain jacket hanging on the back of my chair in my office. But it's coming down in buckets and it doesn't look like it's going to let up anytime soon.

Last night I went out to another meetup group, this one was a meet-and-greet for singles.  I have to admit that I really didn't enjoy it very much. Yeah, I met some nice folks, but I had a couple of things working against me.  First of all, I hate my job, and of course that's the first thing people want to ask you about, and it's hard to avoid being negative when you talk about a job you hate.  The other thing is that I really don't like to tell people where I work anyways, (learned that lesson from my Vegas days), not that people would show up and hassle me, but because when people learn where I work, they inevitably have to offer up an opinion about the place.  Nashville is too small of a town for that.  I haven't figured out a good 'job alias' to tell people yet, I suppose. 

Also, it seems that a lot of the people there *really* want to find somebody for a relationship right away, and well, that's just not for me right now.  I've got plans and things I need to do, and seriously, none of those women I met are the least bit interested in somebody who plans on quitting their job in a year, putting their stuff in storage, and is heading off into the woods for six months. 

Another thing I noticed is that while everyone was super friendly, more than a few of the women were just looking for a way to drink free.  I've been to enough happy hours in my time to avoid that trap, so I didn't offer to buy anyone a drink.  I did, however, meet one gal who I found particularly intriguing, but after talking to her for a bit, I got the vibe that she was actually dating somebody else in the group already.  Of course, the best ones are already taken...

So after about an hour and a half of meeting everyone and making small talk, I ordered a small plate of pot-stickers and grabbed a seat in the corner to watch the Pirates-Cardinals game on the tv, paid my tab, and got out of there by 8:30.  I think I'm gonna stick to the hikers and writers groups instead.  There are no expectations there, and those meetups are much cheaper to attend anyways.

Anyhow, I got to bed early last night, and slept straight through until 8:30 this morning, which I enjoyed very much. I haven't gotten to sleep in for a long time.  Usually on my days off, I'm still waking up at six o'clock in the morning, just out of habit.

So I brewed a pot of coffee, turned on the Pandora, and sat down at the new keyboard.  First of all, I went back and re-read yesterday's epic post, and did a bit of editing--I caught a few spelling errors and such, so I fixed them.  (Part of the problem is that I'm not used to this new keyboard quite yet, and sometimes I accidentally move the cursor around or hit a tab button without knowing it).  I also noticed some awful writing, like in an early paragraph repeating the words 'backpacking' and 'weekend' far too much. The honest truth is that I use this blog to practice my writing, and having taken so much time off, and also so much time between posts, sometimes the results aren't the highest quality.  Maybe subconsciously I'm saving my best for the book I'm working on (at least I hope that's the reason), but I'm always working on improving my work.

Speaking of the book, I think I've got four early chapters almost completely finished, and they are in the capable hands of Linda Lou, getting edited.  We're gonna talk tomorrow night about fixes, and I'll take one of them with me on Monday night to one of my writers group meetings to share.

The funny thing about writing a book is that I don't sit down and write it in chronological order.  I just write whatever I'm thinking about at the time and just let it rip.  The stuff I've got so far is all early chapters, and one of them is obviously Chapter 1, but the others don't follow immediately after that, so it wouldn't quite make sense to anyone that stumbled across my files and tried to read it.  So that kinda leads me to today's project.  My goal for the weekend is to not only crank out another chapter or two (probably just one--they take much longer to write than a random blog post!), but more to work on my outline and get a better sense of exactly how it's going to take shape, and figure out a way to tie together the chapters I've written so far. 

Telling the stories is the easy part.  Tying them together, making them flow and keeping them interesting is the hard part.  Also, I'm finding that one of my personal stumbling blocks is that I unconsciously change from past to present tense and back again over and over again when I'm telling a longer story.  So that creates more work to go back and fix everything.  Also, writing dialogue in the past tense is probably the most difficult thing I've encountered so far.  It's impossible to write exactly how people speak, and finding a balance between the two is a real art. Plus you can't keep using phrases like 'he said' and 'she said' over and over again, otherwise the writing starts to sound like a monotone Hootie and the Blowfish album, where every song feels like it's in the same key.  And the word 'exclaimed' will never make it into my book--it's just trite way of varying  up the word  'said'.  So it's a huge challenge. 

The idea of writing a book is extremely appealing.  The actual doing, the nuts-and-bolts of putting out good material, can get rather tedious.  But it's not all bad, a lot of the work is me going back and rereading old blog posts, remembering stories, remembering things I left out, and enjoying it all over again.  That's actually the fun part, when I get an idea in my head and just run with it. Of course the work comes when I go back and have to fix it and make it more readable, but that's the price of a ticket for admission into the author's club.

But this book ain't gonna write itself.  And nothing is more pathetic than writing about writing a book, right?  I better get after it.


Friday, April 26, 2013

A Walk in the Woods

I finally got the Blogger page to work on my new computer, although it still won't load pictures unless I use IE instead of Firefox, so I'm still a little handicapped, but I'll make do.

Anyhow, my plan for Thursday was to get my doctor's appointment knocked out, then head across the street to my secondary 'corner' office at Panera Bread and get a bunch of writing done, but I got sidetracked nine ways from Sunday.  First, of all, I called my sister Sherry who lives nearby and asked her if she wanted to come by and meet me for lunch--I could take a break from the keyboard and could use the company.  She suggested that I just come over to her house and work instead, because she was working too and had plenty of wifi to go around.

So I skipped coffee and bagels at Panera and headed over to her place.  I soon as I plugged in my new toy and tried to start working, I ran into my first obstacle of the day--one of my USB ports on my brand-spanking-new, less-than-24-hours-old computer didn't work.  And all of the pictures were on my keyring flash drive, which it wouldn't read (but had worked the night before when I was loading documents), nor would it charge my iPhone when I plugged a different device in, trying to find out if it was just that the flash drive was corrupted.  Nothing worked.

So I got online with the HP tech support service and we did the usual reboot and troubleshoot stuff, but nothing worked.  They broke the unfortunate news to me that I likely had a defective USB port and they'd either fix it or just replace the machine, but that I'd have to send it back to HP. 

That really pissed me off.  Nothing worse than getting a brand new computer and finding out that it's broken.  So that was a huge setback and kept me from concentrating, so I just turned the damn thing off and hung out with Sherry. We ordered Chinese food and played Ruzzle while watching some brainless daytime TV. 

After awhile, I figured I'd at least try to work on some other stuff, and without even thinking I plugged the flash drive in, and like a miracle, it worked fine.  I tested the port with my phone and it lit right up!  I don't know how it happened, but I'm not complaining.  Sherry suggested that it was Buster, her 100 lb yellow lab, who fixed it..  He was lurking around looking for attention, and licks EVERYTHING, and well, you know how dog slobber has amazing healing properties...  I don't care how or why, but after that I got the pictures loaded. 

But then the Blogger site wasn't working at all, so I couldn't even type a rough draft, with or without pictures.  By then my frustration had reached it's apex and I gave up for the day. 

Eventually I got things working about 90% of the way, and as long as I load the pictures with IE, I can post like normal.  So now that you have the background, on to the good stuff...

Y'all know that I'm a member of several Nashville Meetup groups, and although I spend about 90% of my time with the writers, I do, on occasion, hook up with the hikers and other singles groups, too.  About a month and a half ago, I went to a Backpacking 101 class they held down at REI in Brentwood, and met a bunch of really smart and experienced people who sounded like they went hiking and backpacking damn near every weekend.

I spent the afternoon with them learning about new gear and getting some good hints and tips for a successful backpacking trip, and also managed to get a spot on beginner's weekend backpacking trip out to Pickett State park, which we did this past weekend.

The plan was to meet up in the parking lot of Home Depot out in Lebanon (about 30 miles east of Nashville) at 7:00 in the morning.  Amy's party was the night before, and lots of Sangria was consumed around the firepit that night, but before I went to bed I had Reverend Dave go through my backpack with me, he having about 50 more miles under his boots than I.  We managed to eliminate about a half pound of unnecessary stuff, but I drew the line at my titanium pot lid, my poop shovel, and my briar pipe and pouch of Captain Black tobacco. 

I finally managed to get to bed around 12:30 that night, utterly exhausted, but like a kid waiting for Christmas morning, it was a fitful sleep. I was really worried that I'd sleep through the 5:00 alarm and miss the whole trip. 

Not to worry though--I actually woke up about fifteen minutes early, raring to go.  I took my shower, put on my all-synthetic clothes, and laced up my Oboz hiking boots.  I got all my extra clothes and stuff loaded in the trunk, and was on my way by 6:00 am.

I got to the Home Depot parking lot with about ten minutes to spare and found that I was the first one there.  A few minutes later a guy pulled in and parked next to me and introduced himself as Chad, and with all of the hiking decals on the back of his SUV, I recognized that I'd passed him on the freeway about ten minutes earlier.  Everyone else started trickling in, introductions were made, and while I'd only briefly met two of the nine people on the trip, it seemed like a really fun group of people.  We figured out the carpooling situation, and I decided that I'd rather leave my car out in the woods at the trailhead overnight instead of as a tempting target in the shopping center, so Chad rode with me.

It's a looooong drive to where we were headed.  I'd never heard of Pickett State Park, but it's way up by the Kentucky border, a little more than halfway between Nashville and Knoxville.  And while we could take the freeway to the little town of Monterey, it was all back roads after that.

We stopped for a potty/food break at Hardees, and went over the driving directions to the park in case we got separated.  But we made it to the ranger's station at the park by around 9:30, did the requisite paperwork and secured our backcountry permits, and then drove down to the trailhead parking lot about three-quarters of a mile away.

It was a pretty brisk morning, but the rule is to start hiking cold, because when you're schlepping a 34 lb pack up and down hills all day, you're gonna warm up in a hurry. We got our gear together made sure everyone had their keys, permits, plenty of water, and everything strapped down and ready to roll.  After an impromptu 'trail yoga' session of stretching, we had a quick briefing from our leader Kerry about what to expect, along with the do's and don'ts of our upcoming day.  We took a few pictures and were on our way.

In addition to Kerry and Steve, our trip leaders, there were three other fairly experienced backpackers in the group, while I was one of the four noobs.  Kerry took the point and I fell in behind her, while Steve stayed in the middle, and one of the other more experienced girls took the tail-end-Charlie position as our 'sweeper', making sure nobody got left behind as everyone has different walking paces. 

But the plan was to take frequent breaks and make lots of stops for rest and water, and after all, we were only going about five miles and we had all day--there was no hurry.

The loop we were doing was called the Hidden Passage Trail, which is almost exactly ten miles long, but there was a spur trail down to our campsite which added a half mile each way to the trip.  Eleven miles wasn't much.  Hell, when I was a kid, I did fifty in three days (of course, I was miserable, but still, I did it), and I can easily walk seven miles in three hours down on the greenway in White House, which I do a couple of times a month.  I figured I was ready to kick ass and take names on this trail!

The first mile was fairly easy--the trail was smooth and well used, and although it went downhill to a creek and back up the other side to the first trail junction, it was about what I expected.  Tougher than a day hike, definitely more hilly than I expected, but just being out in the woods was a lot of fun.  It was a beautiful clear day, and my traveling companions were a good-natured sort, so we had a lot of laughs as we wandered through the woods. 

The first trail junction led off to the left, which we bypassed--it would be part of our return loop the next afternoon, so the last mile or so of the trail would be the only thing we'd repeat.  A few minutes beyond that, we got to the actual 'Hidden Passage' which was a huge rock overhang that form an almost grotto-like passage around the side of the mountain.  While the roof came down low, it never got so low you had to crawl, although my backpack is officially 'broken in' now, with all kinds of scrapes on the upper frame.  It was cool and shady in there and although it was a long drop to the bottom, it was a great spot for a break, as long as you watched your step. 

You can tell it's still early in the hike by the body language.  Everyone is smiling and clean, and nobody is hunched over trying to catch their breath.  That would change before long...

After a short break and a few pictures, it was time to move on down the trail.  It started getting a little more rugged from this point forward--there were TONS of blowdowns blocking the trail that we had to step over, crawl over, or scoot under.  Although it's expected out there in the wilderness, after about the twentieth time, it started to get annoying.

A few more hills and obstacles later, there was a sign for a side trail down to a place called Crystal Falls, and of course we weren't going to miss that.  It wasn't a long side trip, but it was steep and overgrown, reminiscent of the opening jungle scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Luckily we had no tarantulas or headhunters to deal with, and the payoff was spectacular.

On a hot day, it would've been an ideal cool-off spot, but even though it was sunny out, it was barely 60 degrees, and that water was ice-cold, straight out of a limestone mountain spring, so instead of frolicking around in the swimming hole, we just took a few pictures.

We hung out down there for a bit, but the once we climbed back up to the main trail, it took us up the side of the hill to cross the stream that fed the falls.  It was only a few feet across, but it was covered with slippery moss-covered rocks, and it was a long way down to the bottom.  It was one of many times that weekend I was thankful for my trekking poles.

After the side trip to Crystal Falls, the trail got even more rugged the further we got from civilization.  We crossed dozens upon dozens of blowdowns, always slowing us down.  They got to be a real pain in the ass, and my only real complaint about the trip. Instead of walking in the woods, I spend a good portion of my time climbing over and under dead trees.  Normally, when I'm doing my regular dayhikes, I keep up a two-and-a-half mile-per-hour pace.  On this trail, we barely did a mile an hour.  Not because we were slow, but because Mother Nature had set up hundreds of road blocks in our path.

On the other hand, the scenery was nothing short of awesome.  A good portion of the trip was along the edge of a spectacular gorge that dropped off a hundred feet or more in most places.  Yeah, it was tough to enjoy it as much when you were spending most of your time watching your step, because six inches the wrong way and it was adios!, never to be seen again.  But we paused often enough while climbing through the downed trees to be able to enjoy the views.  If anyone in our group was afraid of heights, it didn't show.

A good portion of the trail was just scrambling along bare rocks that dropped off into the canyon below.  The camera doesn't do it justice, but there were plenty of opportunities for gravity to reach up and kill you.

Since walking along the edge of the cliffs, punctuated by the constant creeping through the blowdowns required full concentration, the cameras pretty much stayed tucked away after the first hour or so of the hike.  Eventually the conversation slowed down as went along, the trail sucking the energy out of us one by one. 

After a couple of hours, we had a lunch break in a wide spot on a cliff face.  The overhang provided a little shade, and there were a few flat rocks to sit down on, so we relaxed for about a half an hour or so and broke out the feed bags.  My lunch consisted of pepperoni slices and mustard wrapped in a tortilla, along with a bag of cashews and some turkey jerky.  It was interesting to see what kind of trail food people brought along, and since it was just an overnight trip, we weren't limited to freeze-dried 'expedition' food. One girl brought along whole avocados to eat, and there was plenty of fruit and trail mix variations, too.  A couple of people even brought sandwiches that they kept on the top of their packs so as not to get smashed up, figuring it would only be a couple of hours before they got eaten, anyways.

It was nice to relax and take the pack off for awhile (I used mine as a recliner), and rest the feet.  Since I was wearing shorts, my legs got beat up pretty good--I had dozens of cuts and scrapes, and one gash on the back of my calf that looked like I'd been in a knife fight. I had few handi-wipes to clean up with, but I knew I'd be feeling it for the rest of the week.

We had lunch around 12:30, having been on the trail for two hours.  Steve had a GPS with him and I will admit that I was a little disappointed to learn that we'd only covered a little more than two miles.  It already felt like ten.  But that's the deal with backpacking--basically double the miles from doing a packless dayhike.  If you're doing five miles around the neighborhood on a weekend, put on a backpack and it feels like twice as much distance--it's just that much more work. 

Eventually, we got going again, and right after lunch we had a monster climb to the top of the ridge we were on, but at least we had the energy from resting and eating to help power us through.  We contended with the blowdowns and rough trail conditions for a good part of the afternoon, but there were always great places to slow down and enjoy.  Just before the five mile mark, there was another awesome overhang that had a small waterfall coming down from above, and we stopped and rested for a bit before pushing on to the campsite.

By the time that picture was taken, I was full-on into are-we-there-yet? mode. We'd been on the trail for over four hours and that five miles had completely kicked my ass.  It was rated as a 'moderate' hike as far as difficulty was concerned, but my fat carcass hauling a 34 lb. pack up and down those hills and through all of the downed trees and just about had enough. 

Nobody was happier than me to see the spur trail to the campsite a few minutes later. 

Double Falls was the name of our campsite, and although it was only 2700 feet away from where that picture was taken, it felt like 2700 feet straight down.  Actually it was only about 300 feet down, but it was all in a half mile, which made for a STEEP descent.  I remember thinking to myself Man, this is gonna be a cast-iron bitch climbing back up this mofo in the morning!  I was not looking forward to that.

By that point, I'd contracted a severe case of 'get-there-itis', so I took the point and led the pack train down the hill.  That last twenty minutes or so was easily the longest half mile of the day, and once we got to the flat ground of the campsite, I couldn't take my pack off fast enough.  I was spent.  I drained my water bottle and sat down at the base of a tree, glad that the hardest day of hiking I'd ever done was finally over. 

It took us almost exactly five hours to go five-and-a-half miles, and I felt every step of it.

The first order of business was to set up camp and gather firewood, so we all went our separate ways looking for spots to pitch our tents.  I was impressed with the area though--we couldn't have asked for a more ideal backcountry campsite.  There was plenty of cover and firewood available, and it was a huge area, easily a football field's worth of flat spots for tents, along with ready-made firepit.  Plus there was a creek running alongside the campsite providing drinking water and ambient noise.  Perfect is the only way to describe it.

Although I was moving slowly, I managed get my tent set up and change out of my boots into my camp shoes--a pair of Crocs slides that don't weigh anything, but are damn-near indestructible. I was getting a hot spot on my left heel that was forming into a good-sized blister, so I couldn't wait to take my boots off. 

By the time I got my stuff all set up and my mattress pad inflated, it was all I could do to gather a couple of armloads of firewood.  I made the damn-near fatal mistake of not hydrating enough throughout the day, and I had the worst cramps you could possibly imagine.  I crawled into my tent and laid there for over an hour, shooting pain in my thighs and calves, and even in the top of my foot.  I couldn't move--I just sipped water and laid there grunting in pain every time I tried to bend over to take my socks off.  I was miserable!

Everyone else was scattered about doing their own thing, so nobody really heard me over in my tent swearing to myself and not-so-silently enduring my misery.  I was a pit panicked, wondering how I'd ever climb up that hill, much less haul my ass five-and-a-half miles back to the trailhead, as I was literally unable to move.  Eventually, after about a half-liter of water and an hour of trying to lie still, the pain finally subsided and I was able to change into warm clothes and stand up again.

I went down to the creek to filter more water and top off my bottles, plus I had a half-gallon Nalgene 'canteen' that rolls up small enough to keep in a pack pocket, which I happily shared with my trail-mates for cooking dinner.  It was the most relaxing thing in the world at the time, sitting there on a log on the creek bank, filtering water and soaking my burning feet in the ice-cold stream.

The sun started setting behind the hills and the temperature started to drop, and I realized that I'd forgotten to bring my long hiking pants.  I have a set of synthetic convertible pants (basically cargo pants that you can unzip the legs from and use as shorts). But somehow I'd left them in the trunk of my car instead of putting them in my clothes bag.  Luckily I had a pair of merino wool 'base layer' long underwear, so with those, a wool shirt, a fleece jacket, socks, and a beanie hat, I managed to stay pretty warm as we gathered around the campfire for dinner.

Those few hours around the campfire that evening were the highlight of the trip.  Yeah, it was a great hike with some incredible scenery that day, but the sense of accomplishment after a long day on the trail couldn't be beat.  Plus, relaxing around a fire with good company and a hot meal is always a favorite way to end the day.

For dinner, I made a Knorr side of chicken-flavored noodles in my cook pot, and busted out a hunk of aged cheddar with bacon and a bag of jalapeno beef jerky as a side. I passed the cheese around and it was a big hit--it was that expensive stuff I picked up at the wine tasting earlier in the week.

My kitchen.  A can of fuel, and canister stove, a titanium pot, and a spork.  Thankfully, it doesn't weigh much.

Everyone else kind of had variations on the same thing--freeze-dried or dehydrated meals with veggies and meat added in, fortified with cheese or olive oil, plus dried fruit or trail mix.  One girl tried to convince the rest of us how awesome chicken Vienna sausage was, but I don't think anybody was buying.

There was a lot of passing around and sharing, which was quite the bonding experience--almost like a family dinner.  But it also served to give us rookies ideas for a variety of foods to try on the trail.  Lipton noodles and Mountain House bag meals get old after awhile.

After dinner we built the fire up a little more to give off more heat--it was getting downright COLD that evening, and the more experienced group busted out the goodies.  I brought my pipe along, which everyone loved, but smarter folks than me had flasks full of whiskey and red wine to pass around, which everyone really appreciated.  Good times.

I made it till around 8:30, but by then I was done.  Spent.  Ready to check out.  I cleaned out all my gear and packed up my kitchen stuff, and shuffled back to my one-bunk Hilton for the rest of the night. I'd brought a trail journal with me to do some writing, but I was just too damn exhausted to keep my eyes open.  I crawled into my sleeping bag and zipped it up around me to ward off the chill, and promptly passed out, the effects of the Evan Williams Honey Reserve helping to dull the aches and pains of the day.

The conversation and laughter around the campfire lasted for a bit longer, but I was the first domino to fall.  One by one everyone else called it a night, and by ten o'clock, the fire was down to embers and the campsite was silent, except for Chad's snoring off in the distance...

I woke up around six in the morning, not quite warm, but not quite freezing, either.  My feet were a little cold, although I was wearing wool socks inside of a 25-degree down bag.  Luckily, the cramps were all gone and it was just general soreness I had to contend with that morning.

It took me a good half hour to finally crawl out of my sleeping bag and get dressed before heading off in the woods to do the necessary.  A few other people started stirring, and somebody was kind enough to get the fire started before I got back to camp. 

Breakfast was a little more subdued than dinner was, as morning coffee was a higher priority than conversation.  My niece is a manager of a local Starbucks, so she hooks me up with those instant Via packs.  I mixed one of those with a pack of hot cocoa and touch of powdered creamer, and it was damn good.  I'd planned on having grits and cheese for breakfast, but the thought of scrubbing my pot out again didn't appeal, so I just ate two coconut Cliff bars instead.

One of the guys had extra Gatorade powder, so he offered it to me to help keep my legs from cramping up again.  And I had to drink it with 20 ounces of water, so I was good and hydrated that morning. In addition to that, I had a side of ibuprofen with my breakfast, too.

Breakfast at Emily's.  And I recall, I recall, we both kinda liked it.

While I enjoyed warming up by the fire and socializing with my trail mates that morning, there were chores to be done.  I had to fix the blister on my foot (moleskin and duct tape!), get my tent taken down and all my stuff repacked, and we had to filter more water for the hike out.  And that big-assed Everest of a climb was still ahead of me, too. 

Breaking camp

It took a couple of hours for everyone to get up, eat, do chores, and break camp, and we were ready to hit the trail by 9:30.  Knowing that the hill wasn't going to climb itself, I took the lead once again, quite certain that everyone else would eventually catch up, if not outright pass, my slow but steady ass.

About a third of the way up.  Oh, look, another downed tree to climb over...

Surprisingly, the climb up was much easier than the climb down the previous afternoon.  Maybe because going up is always easier than going down, or more likely because we were well rested and freshly fed and watered.  No matter the reason, it was a lot tougher in my mind than it was on my feet.
Leading the charge up the hill

Once we got to the top, we had a look at the trail map and Kerry told us that we were in for a much easier day--the inbound loop was much more maintained and we wouldn't have nearly as many blowdowns to contend with.  And also, the last two miles would be relatively flat.  That was good news.  While I didn't have to deal with cramps, I was still pretty sore, and there was a nice-sized blister forming on my left heel, too.  So while it was going to be an easier day, it wasn't going to be an easy day.

Once we got back to the top of the hill, we had a relatively easy and flat ridge walk to a place called Thompson's Overlook.  I wish the pictures could illustrate just how cool it was up there, but they don't capture the view, or the ridiculous drop-off below.

Your humble correspondent atop Thompson's Overlook

There were only a few climbs after the overlook--it was probably the highest point on the entire trail, but there were still several ups and downs before we got close to the end.  One in particular was a beast, but we made it through the entire trip without anyone taking a spill  And while we still had a few blowdowns to deal with, it was nothing like the day before. 

A typical section of the trail.  More climbing up and over than actual walking.  I used muscles that I didn't even know I had.  Even Sadie the trail dog was like 'fuck this' after awhile and just stopped when we'd come to another tree blocking the path. 

Some of the hills were a real bitch, but the thing that kept me motivated for the climbs was Major Payne's voice in the back of my head saying 'ONE tubby tubby, TWO tubby tubby' as I put one foot in front of the other

Eventually, we got to the side of the mountain with less wind, thus fewer blowdowns, and the trail leveled out considerably.  Our pace picked up quite a bit, and although we took a few stops for lunch and water, we shaved an hour off of the previous day's hiking time, even though it was the same distance.

At one point, we had to road walk along a forest service road for about a half mile, and instead of using the trekking poles, I just carried them.  And I was ready to stop walking, too...

Notice the gash on the back of my right leg.  Luckily chicks dig scars, because I got lots.

That service road led to a group campsite, and from there it about a half mile downhill to the trail junction we hit the day before.  And from the junction back to the car, it was less than a mile back to the trailhead.  But that last mile was one more big downhill to a creek and then we switchbacked our way up to the top once again.  After the third switchback, I could see my car through the trees and it gave me the motivation to go those last couple hundred yards.  Yeah, I was wiped out, but as was everyone else, but I'm sure I was the most out-of-shape hiker in the group.  But I made it, and it was quite an accomplishment.

There were honestly a few times out there when I was huffing and puffing my way up a hill, or getting pissed off and scraped up as I crawled over or under another dead tree where I thought backpacking just wasn't for me.  That shiat is hard.  But I played a few psychological tricks on myself to keep going.  The obvious one was reminding myself of those awful days in the Vanderbilt ICU where I had machines and tubes hooked up to me and couldn't walk thirty feet. Like the ad said, you've come a long way, baby!  I felt like I owed it to myself to keep walking no matter how hard it was, just to prove that all that was in the past.  Also, there was no other way out of there--I HAD to walk my ass out.  One of the more creative thoughts that kept me going was the history major in me thinking about old Revolutionary War soldiers having to walk in bad shoes, or no shoes at all, with heavy, usually wet, equipment, poor food, and no end in sight.  I kept thinking to myself that I'm a freakin' pussy compared to them, and the least I could do was walk my tired ass five miles in my high-tech boots and light equipment.  And then drive my ass the last hundred-and-fifty miles home.

Whatever it takes, right?

Once we all made it back to the trailhead, it was a mad scramble to get the boots off and change into different clothes, then pack up the vehicles.  We drove back to the ranger station to take advantage of the flush toilets and clean cold water out of the tap.  We cleaned ourselves up the best we could, and I spent a whopping $3.75 for a clean and soft cotton t-shirt from the gift shop.  The ranger said she was thinking about us last night--we were the only people in the park and it got down to 17 degrees that night.  No wonder my feet were cold!

After everyone got cleaned up and changed, we made plans to rendezvous at a restaurant in Cookeville, about sixty miles away.  We were kind of stinky and loud, so they were kind enough to put us on the patio by ourselves.  But it was a great meal, and we had a lot of laughs retelling stories of our adventures. 

We caravanned back to Nashville and said our goodbyes in Lebanon, making plans to all get together again soon.  One thing about life on the trail--you make fast friends.  I don't know if it's because misery loves company, or adventure just brings people together, but whatever the reason, I had a great time and made eight new friends.

And even though if I'd been offered 10 grand to do it again on Sunday afternoon, I would've flat turned it down, I can't wait till the next time.  My body has healed and I've expanded the envelope of my limitations.  It's probably a good thing to keep doing it.


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Out of the Wilderness

As I start out another blog post apologizing for a longer-than-usual absence, I can offer up a couple of legitimate excuses.  First of all, I had no access to wifi for about four days, and also, I was out in the middle of nowhere backpacking with some friends from the Nashville Hiking Meetup group.  In fact, that trip--with lots of pictures--is the subject of my next post, which should be up before Thursday night.  Also, last week, I was out every night last week doing some sort of activity, and my access to the computer was limited at best.  And while Blogger has a mobile app that will work in a pinch, it's a pain in the ass to try and type up a blog post on an iPhone.

Also, as much as I love this Toshiba Satellite computer, it's now six years old, and it's unable to keep up with a lot of the new software out there, (not to mention the newer, faster wifi connection at the Hippie's house), so it's about time to upgrade.  Oh, I'll keep it and leave it on the desk in my room, because it works great as a writing tool and music downloader. But for a laptop, it's relatively heavy and a total pain in the ass to lug around, and it's got the Vista operating system, which Microsoft seems to be abandoning as quickly as possible. And nobody is upgrading software that works with Vista anymore, much less coming up with anything new.  And the battery doesn't last but a couple of hours, either.

That being said, Reverend Dave was in town this past weekend, and brought his new HP Envy X2 with him.  He let me play with it for a bit, and I was instantly hooked.  I don't know why everyone bitches about Windows 8 so much--I loved it.  I found it to be pretty intuitive and thoroughly modern.  And the Envy itself, for those that aren't familiar, is a notebook (11.6 inch screen), but it converts to a tablet--the screen separates completely and you can take it with you and leave the keyboard behind.  It's got two different batteries (one in the keyboard, one in the screen), so it'll go about twelve hours on a charge, too.  I had severe computer envy once I messed around with it for a bit.

Well, just yesterday, they dropped the price $50 on Amazon, so I ordered one as an early birthday present to myself (well, that was the justification for dropping six bills on it).  It'll be here tomorrow, and I can't wait to get it up and running.  Actually, I look forward to bringing it with me to my various writing groups, because this Toshiba feels like it weighs a ton.  And I'll be the coolest wannabe-author in the Portland Brew coffee shop next time, too (off course all the Macbook fanboys with their neckbeards and hipster glasses might disagree, but you can't really trust any opinion from somebody who willingly drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon, am I right?)

Anyhow, so what have I been up to, besides the backpacking trip?  Well, last Tuesday, a week ago, I thought I was going to a Blackberry Smoke concert at the Grand Ole Opry, but we got jacked.  When we saw the announcement on my Facebook feed, the Opry website said 'Blackberry Smoke, One Night Only, with Aaron Tippin', so I jumped online and bought a couple of tickets.  For those of you who don't know, Blackberry Smoke is a kick-ass Southern Rock band out of Atlanta, filling the Skynyrd/Allman Brothers void.  I saw them last September at the Southern Grounds festival and they rocked the house, and I've been a huge fan ever since.

Well, as it turns out, seeing a show at the Opry isn't really a concert.  It's a showcase, straight out of the Fifties, where they have eight to ten different acts per night come on and do two or three songs each, and that's it.  I had no idea, so it was a complete waste of time and I was pretty pissed that I paid $75 for a couple of tickets and only got to see three songs (and it was the three mellowest songs in their repertoire, too.  Can't offend all the 80-year-old tourists!).  Oh, and between each act, there was a guy on the corner of the stage reading 2-3 minute long AM radio-style Cracker Barrel and Dollar General commercials.  It was awful. Just not anything like I expected.  But now I can say as a Nashville resident, I have been to the Opry.  Won't ever go back, though.  At least Scottie and I had a good dinner at Chuy's before the show, and I was home before 9:00 pm.  Yeah, we left as soon as Blackberry Smoke left the stage.

The next night, Wednesday, I met Amy after work and we drove down to Arrington Vineyards, way down south of Nashville, and met up with Scottie and our buddy Gaines for a wine tasting.  I'd been there before, but the first time I visited, I thought the wine was kinda shiatty.  I mean, Tennessee isn't exactly wine country.  But I went with an open mind.  We had a picnic dinner out on the lawn and then went up to the tasting house.  Gaines is a member of their wine club, so as his guests we got to choose SEVEN different wines to taste for free.  Oh hell yeah.  As I recall, a couple of them were actually pretty damn good.  By the time I got to the Port at the end, I had a slight buzz going and it all tasted good.  But that was just a prelude to the main event.

Down on the patio, they had a huge events tent set up and the folks from Riedel Glassware were hosting a big, official wine tasting, their take being that proper glassware is necessary to really enjoy your wine.  Of course, I thought it was a bunch of hooey, just a way to sell glasses, but it was very well put together, and after trying the different wines in different glasses and even out of plastic cups, plus matching them with the right kinds of cheeses, I was total believer--my skepticism had evaporated like the angel's share from the casks in the cellar.  It's hard for me to make a case for it here on the blog, but yeah, I'm convinced.  Besides, for the $35 cost of admission, we got to keep all four of the different glasses, too.

After the tasting was over, we went back up to the main tasting house and picked up a couple of bottles to go, and a couple of bricks of their gourmet cheese, then headed back over to Gaines' house to continue the festivities. I was pretty happy that I didn't have to work the next day, because it was a late night.  But that red wine helped me sleep like a baby.  I stayed down there at the hippies' house and spent the day on Thursday playing with the pugs and working on chapter revisions for Linda Lou (dialogue is hard!).  And like I mentioned before, my laptop requires the old 'N' wifi, and Amy and Scottie use the newer 'G' band wifi (or do I have that backwards, I always forget), and since Amy works at home, they can't really put this computer on the network without slowing it way down, which would affect Amy's job, so I couldn't get online.  But I got a lot of work done.  At some point in the afternoon Reverend Dave called and said he'd drive up to Nashville that night instead of the next day, so I opted to stick around and spend the night there again.  Friday is casual day at my office, so I had plenty of clothes with me.

We had dinner at a local Mexican joint, and just hung out goofing off at the house that night, but I was up and out early on Friday.  Luckily, it was only a half day for me, and it was all meetings, so it was an easy day when I pulled the ripcord at noon.  I drove back to my house and gathered all my backpacking gear and a few necessities for the weekend, showered, changed clothes, and got back on the road a couple of hours later, heading back down to the Hippies house.

It was Amy's birthday that weekend, so we were having a party that night.  David grilled some ribeyes, plus made some asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and goat cheese, grilled corn on the cob, and also made a baked brie with apricot preserves, too.  And Scottie made his awesome caramelized-onion and garlic mashed potatoes, and of course we cracked open a couple of bottles of red wine, too.  As soon as dinner finished, people started showing up, and we lit up the firepit and broke out the sangria. Good times!

It was a great party, but I had to go to bed at midnight--my alarm was set for 5:30 in the morning.  I had to be out in Lebanon at 7:00 (forty miles away) for our carpool meetup, because it was another hundred miles or so to Pickett State Park where we were going backpacking.

By the time I got back late Sunday evening, I was a tuckered out little trooper--completely wiped out.  I had Monday off, which I needed, because I was hobbling around the house like an old man who lost his cane.  But I felt much better today, and was extremely bummed to get up early this morning, drive in to work, only to find out that I was supposed to be out on vacation all this week.

Had I known, I would've stayed in bed.  I couldn't really do much about today, so I cancelled the rest of it and came back home. I must still be pretty tired, because I fell asleep on the couch as soon as I got back, but I'm up now and trying to take a bite out of my never-ending to-do list.  And one of the things on it is to write up the weekend's adventures out in the park.

I better get on it.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

Get it TODAY

Hey Readers, today only, get a FREE Kindle version of Linda Lou's book Bastard Husband: A Love Story.  Normally it's about three bucks (still a bargain!), but even if you don't have a Kindle you can still get the Kindle app for your iPad or droid tablet.

Or if you prefer to go old-school, that's ok too.  You can still get the real-book version from Amazon, and it makes a fine addition to your library, coffee table, or back-of-the-toilet shelf.  Don't laugh, you know you keep reading material in there.

Don't worry fellas, I know what you're thinking--but no, it's not a Lifetime Movie gone to print. It's actually funny, entertaining, and nobody gets kidnapped, held hostage, stalked, or otherwise oppressed by evil men-folk.

Anyhow, if you want a few laughs sprinkled in with a few Vegas stories, get the book.  You'll enjoy it.  I promise.


Thursday, April 11, 2013

Figuring It Out

After a wonderful sunny day where I was stuck in the cube, unable to enjoy it, I'm spending my day off wishing that it wasn't drizzly and cold out.  Well, it's not that cold, just cool, I suppose, but the rain and overcast make it feel like a curl-up-with-a-book-and-a-bowl-of-soup kind of day.

I had considered taking a nice long hike today, but I purposely asked for a rain jacket for Christmas that was a couple sizes too small, and it's still a bit snug, so I can't really use it yet.  It's a nice Marmot jacket, and they make great stuff--I have one of their rain hats and everyone who sees it wants one--but since it's expensive, I don't want to cram myself into it and take a chance of breaking a zipper or blowing out a seam.  Instead, I'm spending the day going through my backpacking gear and getting it organized for my next trip.

Y'all know that I'm a member of about a half-dozen different Meetup groups here in Nashville, and there are a couple of different hiking and backpacking groups.  Anyhow, one of the hiking groups is sponsoring a 'beginners' backpacking trip next weekend and I registered early enough to get a spot.  I met the group leaders and a few of the other participants a few weeks ago down at REI, and we had an afternoon-long meet-and-greet plus a few presentations about what to bring and what to expect and such.  Now, I'm not a total beginner, like some of my colleagues, but I'm by no means an expert.  Maybe an armchair expert, because I've read, researched, and certainly spent a lot, but I just don't have a lot of miles on my boots yet.

I'm hoping to get two or three multiple-day trips in by the end of the year, so no I have no cruises or anything else like that on the calendar (well, maybe another trip to Vegas), but otherwise I'm saving my paid time off for walks in the woods.

Anyhow, next weekend we're going on a ten-mile roundtrip trek through Pickett State Park, up near the Kentucky border about 150 miles east of here.  We're gonna do five miles in on Saturday, camp and bonfire that night, then five miles out on Sunday morning, before returning to Nashville.

I'm pretty sure that I've got 100% of the gear I need at this point, although for a long time I was worried about clothing.  It's dangerous to wear jeans or cotton clothing while backpacking, because it absorbs moisture (sweat and rain) and doesn't try out, so it gets heavy and causes hypothermia, too.  Or as they say, 'Cotton Kills'. And they don't sell a lot of any synthetic hiking clothing at the Big & Tall.  Well, I'm done with those gougers, so I've been bargain shopping at Sierra Trading Post for the past couple of months, plus picking up the occasional sale item at REI, too.  I've got some excellent nylon convertible pants, some Merino wool base-layer gear, and a couple of long-sleeved synthetic t-shirts.  Not to mention a very cool North Face fleece pullover shirt/jacket thing that is probably my new favorite in the wardrobe.

Also, I had a small jar full of change that I took down to the CoinStar machine down at Kroger the other day, as it was starting to overflow and spill all over my desk.  I held back about $8.00 worth of quarters to get my car washed and vacuumed, but the rest I cashed in.  Instead of paying the 9.8% that they want to hold back to give you a cash voucher, I opted for an Amazon gift card.  So the brown-suited Santa Claus is coming today with a few other goodies--a short sleeved synthetic shirt (I had a couple already, but they're now about three sizes too big) and a D-ring web belt. I'm keeping my black leather belt for work (which goes just short of one-and-a-half times around me), but it won't do for outdoors activities.  Besides, my pants, no matter what size, eventually always fall down, and then couple that with slick synthetic underwear, I need a belt in the worst way when I'm out in the woods.

Now, I think I'm ready to go...

So today I'm doing what they call a 'gear bomb', basically tearing up the backpack and repacking and reorganizing everything.  I got a new ultra-light sleeping pad a few months back, and had never even blown it up before, so I got that out, along with my down sleeping bag, and gave it a test drive on the floor of the den this morning. I also had to go through the food back and make sure I didn't have any old nasty stuff in there, either.  Anyhow, here's what the den looks like today:

I know it looks messy, but there's a method to my madness. It'll take me most of the afternoon to get everything organized, especially since The Masters is distracting me on ESPN, but I'll get it done.  I have to.

At some point I also have to sit down at the keyboard and bang out another chapter or two for my upcoming book.  I really haven't done much in a week, but then again, the muse hasn't been singing and I'm still waiting for some feedback from a couple of people who've been down this road before me.  I guess I could just go with the old stream-of-consciousness method and just get something down on paper, and worry about cleaning it up later, but I'd rather be effective than efficient.  And while I'm hoping to have it completely written by Labor Day, I think that might be a bit optimistic.  Some days I can sit and write for hours, and some weeks I can't get three sentences written that are worth a damn.  It's a strange process, one that I still don't fully understand.  But right now I'm wishing I were dealing poker 18 hours a week and goofing off at the keyboard the rest of the time.  Wasting eight hours a day in an office I don't like being in really sucks the creativity out, and not in a good way, either. 

But that's the news for the day.  A fresh pot of coffee is ready, and I've got stuff to do.  I'll check in later.


Friday, April 05, 2013

Pecking Away

Sorry for not getting anything up yesterday--I'm trying my hardest to put something up on Sundays and at least one day mid-week (usually Thursdays), but for it being a day off, I found myself surprisingly busy. 

But the entire week's been busy for me. Of course on Wednesday, I had another doctor appointment.  Well, I actually needed to just get my FMLA renewal paperwork signed, so I don't get jacked at work for the attendance policy stuff, but you can't see the doctor, or even just have the paperwork dropped off without coughing up that co-pay and getting the full-on exam.  I really shouldn't complain because I really like my doctor and the staff there at the office, they've always treated me really well, and it feels like I'm there EVERY week.  It was just a minor annoyance, because what I thought would take me about ten minutes ended up taking away most of my afternoon. 

And I'd forgotten to bring my phone charger with me that day, which created another pain in the butt for me.  Usually I have a USB adapter in my backpack with me at all times, and I plug my phone into my desktop at work to charge it, or into the USB port in the center console of my car.  But, instead, when I left work the night before, I just put it in my pants pocket and forgot about it.  And while I was sitting in the waiting room, and in the exam room, waiting, I was constantly playing Ruzzle against three or four different people, which sucks the battery faster than using it as a GPS. So the iPhone went into last-gasp mode and shut down on me. 

After my day at the doctor's office, I had to drive across town to Green Hills and secure a table for eight at Cheesecake Factory for a family dinner.  I had plenty of time to kill, plus I still had my laptop in my backpack, so I walked over to Panera Bread to chill for an hour and maybe do some writing.  But then their wifi was on the fritz, so all I did try and edit some Word files I'd been working on, but my heart wasn't into it, so I mostly just sat and played Hearts while drinking my vanilla latte.

I did, however, have a cool random encounter while I was there.  When I walked in, I wandered about for a minute or two, looking for a table with an electrical outlet nearby (the laptop is getting old, and the battery ain't what she used to be).  Well, at the same time there was a rather attractive gal who kept looking at me, and once I grabbed a table, she came over to talk to me. 

Turns out she was meeting a blind date there, and wondered if I were he.  Of course, my best response came to me about thirty seconds after I told her that I was not.  Then I was kicking myself--I could've offered to pretend we were there together until the dude showed up, and then if he seemed OK she could go over and introduce herself, if he didn't, well then, Roll Tide!

But I didn't bring my A-game with me, and instead it was just me and the laptop having coffee.

Eventually we had our dinner a few doors down at the Cheesecake Factory.  I had a few bites of some chicken-stuffed tortilla with black beans and corn fritters (so damn good!), but then got the to-go box.  Of course I also had them get me a slice of German Chocolate cheesecake to go, too.  Certainly not what I was supposed to be eating, but since I spread it out over a couple of days, it's OK, right?

But Thursday, it was nice to actually sleep in and not be bothered by the alarm clock.  For the last couple of weeks, I've been run-down and out of sorts, waking up exhausted every day, no matter how early I'd gone to bed.  So I felt pretty good yesterday.  I did my normal household chores, but then I spent a couple of hours reading, too--I've got a couple of free books from Amazon that I'm supposed to review within 30 days, so I read until I fell asleep and napped for three more hours. 

Too bad I didn't appreciate how awesome naps were back when I was a kid--I'm all over that shiat nowadays!

Once I woke up, I grabbed a bag of turkey jerky and sat down at the computer, and I managed to get another 1600+ words done on the first book.  That's just about three-and-a-half single-spaced pages on Word with a 12 pt. font--just enough for a chapter.   I have no idea how much that is on a standard printed book page, but I want people to feel like they got their money's worth.  I hate buying a book and finding out that it's only 180 pages long.  Anyhow, I think I now have four completed chapters (but all are still waiting to be edited).  If I had to nail down a target, I'm hoping for about 28-32 chapters when all is said and done but it may go even longer than that. 

Right now it's pretty tough going; even though I'm writing a memoir-style book about my time in Las Vegas, that first year I was there, I hardly blogged at all, so I have to go back and fill in all the holes from the beginning, but then I've also got to give all the pre-Vegas background stories, too. And y'all know how I can just crank out the words once I get going, so this thing might end up being thicker than a Betty Crocker cookbook. I hope Linda Lou's got her editing pencil sharpened, because I don't think she has any idea what she's volunteered for.

I remember hearing once, when I was a teenager, that in the entire Bible, there were only 36 or 39 days written about Jesus' life.  Even if you take out the Old Testament, that's still a helluva book centered around eight weeks of activities.  I'm finding that each chapter, so far, covers one particular day that fits into the narrative arc. And I was there for almost six years--this project could get out of hand!  I might come away from this thinking Tolstoy was a piker.

Anyhow, I've got a couple more lectures to watch today, plus do a little more reading, and maybe crank out another chapter, too.  I may even get motivated to pick up the bass and run some scales for a half hour during the Cardinal's game later this afternoon.

So that's the news today.  And oh by the way, you wanna guess where I found my phone charger that night?  Yep, in the dryer.  Just like all those wallets in the old days, until I bought this huge Fossil thing that that's bigger than a checkbook (still haven't washed *it* yet, knock on wood).

Anyhow, more to come...