Thursday, December 22, 2011

Winter Solstice



Here are some thoughts about the year’s coldest season on this, its first day:

I love how it begins with evergreen boughs on mantles, lighted trees in village squares, carols on the radio, and people knowing that life’s greatest joys come from giving rather than receiving.

I love its chilly mornings when fog clings to the surfaces of ponds.

I love sitting outside on those mornings drinking hot black coffee.

I love watching Sarah try to catch snowflakes on her tongue during our winter vacation.

I love driving across California’s High Sierra between snow drifts so deep they soar above cars and turn roadways into tunnels of white.

I love walking through Appalachian forests that are barren of leaves but laden with snow, and therefore have the appearance of black-and-white photos come to life.

And finally, I love that I can spend a whole day outside in Florida without feeling the need to shower every hour.

So for those who curse the cold: Remember that every season brings beauty, so long as we stop to notice it.

Monday, December 19, 2011

A Carol Born


When it comes to carols, I have always found “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” to be especially poignant (if you're not familiar with it, you can listen to it here.)

It did not begin as a song, but as a poem written on Christmas morning 1863 by America’s greatest poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. At that moment in time America was torn apart and battling itself in the Civil War – a war that still stands as the one in which more Americans died than in any other.

When dawn broke that morning, Longfellow was despondent. During the war his son Charles had been horrifically wounded when a bullet passed through part of his spine, leading to a long and excruciating recovery. And as if that wasn’t dark enough, his wife Frances had died as a result of burns sustained when her clothes were set on fire by dripping sealing wax, which she was melting with the intention of using it to preserve some of their daughter’s trimmed curls.

But despite that sorrowful backdrop, as Longfellow sat in his Massachusetts home on Christmas and heard the ringing of local church bells, his faith in divine promise started to stir and he was moved to put pen to paper. The resulting poem was transformed into a hymn nine years later, when John Baptiste Calkin composed the music to which it was set.

The poem’s words absolutely speak for themselves. Since some of them are excluded from the carol we normally hear this time of year, here they are in their entirety:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Real Saint Nick

History provides many examples of actual people who have, over time, become so melded into the popular imagination that we tend to forget they were real. Saint Nicholas is one of them.

Born sometime around 280 A.D. in the town of Patara, in what was then part of Greece but is now part of Turkey, Nicholas was the son of wealthy parents who died when he was young. Having been raised as a devoted Christian, he spent his life using his inheritance to help those in need, and in addition to his charity he became known for harboring great concern for children and sailors.

Down through history, one particular story about his generosity has persisted. In those days, women whose families could not pay a dowry were more likely to die as spinsters than to get married. It is said that when Nicholas learned of a poor man who was worried about his daughters’ fate because he lacked money for their dowries, Nicholas surreptitiously tossed gold into the man’s home through an open window, and the gold landed in stockings that were drying by the fire. Much later, this 1,700-year-old story inspired the modern tradition of hanging stockings by the chimney to receive gifts from Santa on Christmas Eve.

Nicholas became Bishop of Myra and was imprisoned during the anti-Christian persecutions carried out by the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Based on the stories of his life, Catholic tradition considers him a patron saint of children, orphans, sailors, travelers, the wrongly imprisoned, and many other categories of people. Churches were constructed in his honor as early as the sixth century A.D. Today, his remains are buried in Bari, Italy.

For generations now, kids and adults alike have used the names Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, and Saint Nick interchangeably, without giving it a second thought. But there was an actual Saint Nicholas, a decent man who is obscured by commercial renderings of Christmas. We should not allow that fact to be forgotten, regardless of whether or not we are Catholic (and for the record, I am not).

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Never Forget


Pearl Harbor Day is upon us, so let us recall what happened 70 years ago today. The day after the bombing, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed Congress on December 8, 1941, to request a formal declaration of war. His speech was simulcast to the country at large via the radio. In it, he said:

Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

The United States was at peace with that nation, and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our secretary of state a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack…

Yesterday the Japanese government also launched an attack against Malaya.

Last night Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.

Last night Japanese forces attacked Guam.

Last night Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.

Last night Japanese forces attacked Wake Island.

And this morning the Japanese attacked Midway Island…

Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves…

Always will be remembered the character of this onslaught against us.

No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory…

With confidence in our armed forces – with the unbounding determination of our people – we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.



Pearl Harbor was attacked because it was where the U.S. Navy’s Pacific fleet was headquartered. The bombing, which killed more than 2,400 people, began shortly before 8:00 on a Sunday morning.

Five of our eight battleships were sunk, the other three were badly damaged, and multiple other naval vessels were destroyed.

The majority of the American war planes based in Hawaii were destroyed as they sat on the ground.

In addition, most of the American air forces based in the Philippines were destroyed during the nighttime attack on that nation, which FDR also mentioned in his speech.

By crippling our Pacific defenses, the December 7th attack left us extremely vulnerable in the face of an aggressive enemy to our West – an enemy that had signaled its intent to rule the entire Pacific basin by subjugating other nations to its will.

This came at a time when we had not responded to the fact that Nazi Germany to our East had already declared war against us, had already brought most of Europe under its thumb, and had signaled its own intention to rule the world by way of an Aryan resurrection of the old Roman Empire.

Such circumstances would have spelled doom for the vast majority of countries throughout the course of history. With their foundations based on the accidents of ethnicity and geography, most countries would have simply surrendered; or, in a distinction without a difference, entered into “peace” negotiations under which they would have to accept the aggressor’s terms and after which the lives of their citizens would most certainly change for the worst.

But the United States is a nation based on ideals. Our foundation springs from the knowledge that there are things greater than us, things which are greater than the transient circumstances which exist on any given day. We have always found strength in the conviction that our nation exists to support and advance those greater things, to the benefit of people all over the world, and this sets the United States apart from all other nations in all other times.

Taking heed from FDR’s appeal to “righteous might,” reflecting what Abraham Lincoln earlier referred to as the “faith that right makes might,” the American people of 1941 summoned the invincible courage to rebuild and fight at the same time they were under fearsome siege. They did this despite the fact they were still suffering through an unprecedented economic depression that had started more than a decade before.

Let us pray that those qualities – that will to power and that unwavering belief in the sanctity of human freedom – have not been lost as new generations of Americans take the baton from the great ones which came before. For as has been said, those who forget the past will be forced to repeat it.

It would be shameful if history were to record that we failed to transfer freedom’s blessings to our descendants.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

College Football: Almost in the Rear View


With Rivalry Weekend completed and only a handful of games remaining in college football's "pre-bowl season," here are some thoughts and observations:


Honey Badger for Heisman: Count me among those who believe LSU's undersized, lion-hearted CB Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu deserves the trophy. The criteria for choosing college football's best player are obviously subjective, but I firmly believe that you have to put heavy weight on how a player performs in the biggest, most consequential games -- and Mathieu delivered in championship style against Arkansas on Friday.

The Tigers were trailing 14-7, and in danger of seeing their perfect season go up in smoke, when Mathieu seized the momentum and swung it irreversibly in their favor. First he delivered on special teams, fielding a punt at LSU's 8-yard line and returning it 92 yards to tie the game...Four plays later, back on defense, he stripped the ball from RB Dennis Johnson and the Tigers recovered, then used the ensuing possession to score a go-ahead touchdown just before halftime...In the fourth quarter Mathieu stripped the ball from TE Chris Gragg, took possession of it himself, and ran for 19 yards the other way...Plus, his eight tackles were most on the team...Oh, and he did all that despite the fact that for the first time in his career he was playing safety instead of cornerback.

A case can be made that some other players are deserving of the Heisman, but I dare anyone to make a case that there is a player more deserving than Mathieu. And that's before I even get around to saying that Honey Badger is the coolest nickname in America, given this video.


Quarterbacks: Not to take anything away from Andrew Luck, but if I was starting a football team and had to choose one of today's players to be its QB, I would opt for Kellen Moore. They both are good at reading defenses and making plays, but Luck has thrown multiple interceptions in every game I have watched him play the last two years. I can't say the same for Moore, and on top of that, Moore's Boise State squads would be undefeated for two years running if not for a pair of missed field goals that were beyond his control.


Fiery Foes: Nationally, no one thinks of Kansas-Missouri as being anywhere near as intense a rivalry as Auburn-Alabama, Ohio State-Michigan, or Oklahoma-Texas. But after working with a Kansas native for several years, I have come to realize that it is that intense. Speaking as an Auburn graduate, I am here to tell you that the mutual enmity felt by fans of Kansas and Missouri is every bit as heated as the enmity between fans in those other rivalries.

Another cool thing about this border war is the spoil that goes to the victor: the Indian War Drum, which has gone to the winner in all but a few of the last 75 seasons. Think of it as a frontier-inspired version of the more publicized trophies that are associated with Midwestern schools from farther east, such as the Little Brown Jug between Michigan and Minnesota and Old Oaken Bucket between Indiana and Purdue. All I am saying is that the Kansas-Missouri rivalry is the kind of thing that makes college sports great, and it will be a shame if it goes by the wayside simply because of conference realignment.


Woe Wisconsin: Wisconsin is the most unfortunate team in America. Midway through the season it looked like the Badgers had a better than even chance of playing in the BCS National Championship Game, but then they dropped two straight games both on closing-second Hail Marys. Lesser teams would have folded, but the Badgers plowed forward to win their last four by an average of 30+ points and win the Big Ten Leaders Division. They almost certainly would stand a better chance of beating LSU than any team besides Alabama.

However, in the current AP poll Wisconsin is not even ranked in the top ten. And it is ranked behind fellow two-loss squads like Oklahoma (which was beaten at home by 5-7 Texas Tech) and Arkansas (whose losses were both by 24 points). I don't remember the last time a team of this caliber was given such a low poll number all because of two fluke plays.


Stats that make you go hmmm: On Saturday, Florida State gained less than 100 yards for the whole night but still beat Florida 21-7...Going into the weekend, Kansas and Missouri had played each other 119 times and the series was dead even at 55-55-9...Wisconsin RB Montee Ball has scored more touchdowns this season (34) than any player ever has in a season, except for Barry Sanders in 1988...For all the favorable publicity and financial advantages the Texas Longhorns are given, and five-star recruits they sign, they have won just two conference titles in the Mack Brown era. Oklahoma has won seven during the same period. So should Brown go or should he stay?


Lastly, here is the Stanton’s Space Top Twenty:


1. LSU

2. Alabama

3. Oklahoma State

4. Virginia Tech

5. Boise State

6. Stanford

7. Wisconsin

8. Oregon

9. Houston

10. Georgia

11. USC

12. Arkansas

13. South Carolina

14. Michigan State

15. Oklahoma

16. Baylor

17. Kansas State

18. TCU

19. Penn State

20. Michigan

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Thanksgiving


Last Thanksgiving I posted this. And today Parker turned five months old. Amazing.

I am definitely thankful this year, in spite of some circumstances that should have caused -- and should still be causing -- a tremendous amount of stress. In short, I am glad my priorities are straight.

I love my wife...


...my daughter...


...and my son...


...and because of them, I love my life. Thanks Fam!


Oh, and thank you Kelly Noel for three of these four pictures.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

LeConte, Part Three



It was after midnight when Mother Nature sent a downpour to declare her authority. Jolted awake by the roar of raindrops on the tin roof, I rolled over in my sleeping bag and was soon met by another sound of authority: Wind. Its howl told me the gusts were packing enough power to blow a man down, and it was obvious there would be no uninterrupted sleep for the rest of the night.

Although it had stopped raining by the time day broke, there was no sun to be seen because a cloud was wrapped around the summit. It was 35 degrees; the air was the color of goose down; and this is what I saw looking out from my sleeping bag:



The thought of remaining in our bags and out of the cold was appealing, but we pushed it aside. Having covered more than five miles climbing to this spot the day before, and knowing we now faced an eight-mile hike out of the wilderness, we forced ourselves to get going.

First we donned our jackets and lowered our backpacks from the bear cables. Then we crammed our sleeping bags into their stuff sacks, and crammed those sacks into our packs. Then we shouldered the packs and headed away from LeConte Shelter on the Boulevard Trail.



Within a matter of minutes we came to High Top, the loftiest of Mount LeConte’s four peaks, and we were standing on the mountain’s true apex at an elevation of 6,593 feet. However, High Top happens to be the least “peak like” of the four because it is neither pointed nor a cantilever...and because its thick growth of conifers prevents you from seeing the kind of vistas you would expect from the tallest mountain this side of the Mississippi.

What High Top does provide in the way of sightseeing is the tall rock pile pictured below, which has been erected over the years by hikers adding stones when they arrive. Some say this has been done in an effort to make LeConte even taller, so that its elevation will surpass that of Clingman’s Dome. Others say it has been done to honor an ancient Cherokee custom which holds that people should add stones to rock piles they pass, in order to placate evil spirits.



Continuing on, we were only a third of a mile from the shelter when we reached the spot where the Boulevard Trail turns left and heads downhill, while a side path goes straight and uphill to another of LeConte’s peaks: Myrtle Point. And for the record, Myrtle Point is what you would expect of a peak -- narrow, rocky, and obviously high, to the point of being dizzying. If you ever spend a night on LeConte, you may want to know that Myrtle Point is known as the best place on the mountain to watch the sunrise.

Although we were still in a cloud, we could not turn down the opportunity to stand atop Myrtle Point after coming this far, so we set off on the side path and hoped the cloud would somehow blow away or burn off in the next few minutes. We found that the side path is not so much a path, but the actual rocky spur that forms the peak:



The cloud cover did not dissipate like we had hoped, but it did grow thinner and we were able to make out a faint but expansive view to the north:



Encouraged that the clouds seemed to be on their way out, we scrambled back down Myrtle Point to resume our course on the Boulevard Trail. Along the way we encountered a pair of ladies who had stayed at LeConte Lodge the previous night. One of them showed us a picture she had taken of a black bear that showed up at the lodge around dinner hour. As it turned out, the bear was featured on the lodge’s blog the very next day.

Back on the Boulevard Trail, we descended steadily down the eastern side of LeConte’s massif until we reached a ledge that juts out over a big drop. Here I am on it:



Standing there and looking back up whence we had come, it was obvious that we were leaving the cloud behind. Wisps of vapor drifted by just above us, raking through the trees, but below us were open skies. The trail continued a short ways to the following rock face, where we took advantage of one of those steel cables that are bolted into the mountainside at many places on LeConte:



After crossing the rock face and looking back, this is the view to which we were treated:



From that point forward we were walking not merely on the Boulevard Trail, but on The Boulevard itself: The 2½-mile ridgeline connecting Mount LeConte to Mount Kephart. It is a true knife-edge ridge, just wide enough for a person to walk on, seldom wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side, offering up so many postcard views that shutterbugs won’t stop taking pictures until their camera batteries die. Here are a couple of those views:




This stretch was the most glorious of our whole trip. The skies were blue and the vistas boundless. The temperatures were cold and dry, not frigid and damp. And the walking, while not always level, was also not difficult because the ups and downs were wonderfully modest.

Unfortunately, however, all good things must come to an end. At some point the trail started ascending without leveling off. Suddenly we were trudging not merely upward, but continuously upward, and steeply upward, and having already traveled a long distance while lugging a lot of weight, my muscles screamed in protest.

For the next ¾ mile or so all we did was climb the northwestern flank of Mount Kephart, and my lungs, heart, legs, and back objected strenuously. At one point high on the mountain we passed this apparently unremarkable cascade:



Impressively, it is actually the beginning of Walker Camp Prong, the sizeable stream we had passed at the beginning of our hike the day before. What a difference 10 miles makes:



By the time the Boulevard Trail dead-ended at the Appalachian Trail, 4.7 miles from Myrtle Point, all I cared about was getting back to the car and drinking the Gatorade that was waiting for us…but first we had to hike another 2.7 miles on the Appalachian Trail.

Those 2.7 miles are the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina, and are mostly downhill, but that does not mean they are easy. They make their way across many rocks and roots, which forced us to pay extra attention to where and how we stepped.

This proved to be the most technically demanding stretch of our entire adventure. We seemed to walk slower and slower and get shorter and shorter of breath, but when we started seeing casually dressed people with kids in tow, we knew we were nearing the parking lot at Newfound Gap. Finally it came into view, and I swear the sight of a parking lot has never felt so good. We sat down and guzzled Gatorade, feeling victorious and whipped all at the same time.

I went back over to the trailhead where we had emerged, and snapped a picture of the sign that greets everyone who steps into the woods at that point. Hiking aficionados will appreciate the last line item, which tells that from here it is 1,972 miles to the end of the Appalachian Trail.



Twenty minutes later we were driving to the town of Sylva, North Carolina, where Mill & Main Restaurant was waiting with craft beers and delectable food.

In closing, here is a picture of LeConte's massif, taken from the Appalachian Trail looking back to the north:



Thursday, November 3, 2011

LeConte, Part Two



The elk battle we had witnessed was behind us by 30 minutes, 3,000 vertical feet, and 15½ miles of winding road by the time we reached Newfound Gap. Mike parked the car and I stepped out into a cold drizzle, almost a mile above sea level and directly on the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. If not for the fact we were in the clouds, we would have been treated to a magnificent view of the mountains.

The bill of my baseball cap kept the raindrops far enough from my eyes that I felt no need to squint as I looked for the red van, which was supposed to shuttle us to the trailhead where our journey was to start. Sure enough, I saw it waiting about 60 feet away, over by the trailhead where our journey was to end.

The driver introduced herself as Samantha. Before long, my hiking partners and I had piled our stuff into the van and were listening to her talk about bear encounters as she drove us down the north slopes of the Smokies. Mike’s car remained locked in Newfound Gap’s parking lot, stocked with Gatorade and beer and waiting for our eventual return.

It was not raining where Samantha dropped us off, but knowing the forecast and knowing we were likely to hike back into the clouds, we opted to sheath our backpacks in rain covers. After finding somebody kind enough to take the following picture, we stepped onto the Alum Cave Trail and our adventure began in earnest.


Streams are the trail’s constant companion for its first 1½ miles. Almost immediately we crossed Walker Camp Prong on a wooden bridge and a minute later crossed Alum Cave Creek on another one. The trail travels alongside Alum Cave Creek for about a mile, heading upstream on an easy incline to the point where the creek veers off to the east. As you can see, Mike went right down to its banks to search for the perfect photo spot:


Most people fail to notice Alum Cave Creek’s departure because right as that happens the trail starts to follow one of its tributaries, a stream known as Styx Branch. It crosses Styx Branch four times, and after the third crossing it passes through this interesting geological formation known as Arch Rock:



The arch is actually a hole in the dark slate/sandstone sediment of the Anakeesta Formation. The Anakeesta is sloping in this spot, and as the trail passes under the arch it goes uphill on steps carved into the rock. Here I am climbing them:



On the other side of Arch Rock, the character of the trail changes abruptly. Rather than ascending gently, it does so steeply and continuously while making its way toward the top of Mount LeConte. It often travels along the sides of precipices, in some cases with steel cables bolted into the mountainside for you to hold onto.

We saw lots of red squirrels scampering about and several times heard their insistent chatter. As you would expect in October, the weather was cool and the forest was bathed in color:


Up to about 4,500 feet there are more deciduous trees than evergreens, but above that the evergreens get larger and more numerous:

Roughly two miles into the hike, the trail swings rightward around the mountain flank and straight ahead is an outcropping called Inspiration Point. The views from there proved that the word “breathtaking” is not always an exaggeration:


Back on the trail, it was about a third of a mile to the landmark which gives it its name. Alum Cave Bluffs is not a cave, but rather a cliff face that towers 80 feet above the trail and hangs outward. The area beneath it is dry and makes a perfect spot for taking a break and enjoying the view. It is where most people turn around and head back to their cars:


We did take a break there to eat some Cliff Bars and swig some water, but then we pressed on. The bluffs are at 4,950 feet elevation, while LeConte Shelter -- where we planned to camp that night -- is at 6,440 feet. We still had 2.7 miles left to trail’s end, followed by an additional third of a mile on another trail to reach the shelter.
Above the bluffs, the forest becomes one whose trees are almost all evergreens. Early in our hike we had seen lots of hardwoods, especially yellow birch, but at these higher altitudes the forest is a cathedral of Christmas trees. Red spruce are everywhere and Fraser firs are up here as well. It was wonderful having the aroma of Christmas fill my nostrils for the last couple miles of that day’s hike:



And those last couple miles revealed exactly why LeConte inspires awe. It is not so much its height, but its steepness at that height which impresses. In some places the trail is hewn directly into the side of vertical rock walls. In many places I used my right hand to grip one of those steel cables I mentioned earlier, while my left foot stepped inches from harrowing drops of God knows how many hundreds of feet.

The vistas from the upper reaches of the Alum Cave Trail are said to be among the best in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and I suspect that is true, but I can not vouch for them because we were hemmed in by view-robbing clouds when we got there. And on top of that it was cold, and on top of that it started raining, so we were happy when the wooden structures of LeConte Lodge suddenly appeared in the mist:



I mentioned the lodge in my last post, but to recap, it is a collection of huts with a central dining room and is accessible only by foot. We made a bee line to the dining room and took advantage of its sack lunch deal: bagel, cream cheese, beef sausage, Musselman’s apple sauce, trail mix, packet of powdered Gatorade, and unlimited coffee and hot chocolate for $9. After the calories we had burned (and after being served by a worker we affectionately dubbed “Mountain Chick”) it felt like we were in a five-star restaurant.

Not long before our trip, Mark’s sister from Minnesota had casually mentioned LeConte Lodge and how she would like to hike to it sometime -- without knowing he even knew what it was, much less had plans to climb the mountain. Naturally, he held back on the specifics of our trip and had us take pictures of him outside the dining room to impress her:


As good as it felt to sit in the warm dining room and rest our aching muscles, it was late in the afternoon and we still had to make it to the shelter and get situated, so we re-shouldered our packs and headed back outside.

Fortunately it was only a quarter-mile from the lodge to the shelter, and because we were now on LeConte’s summit ridge, the walk was level for a change. Along the way we passed a side path to Cliff Top. Of LeConte’s four peaks, it is the one most renowned for sunsets, but we knew there would be no sunset for us because of the thick cloud cover.

The next picture is of the shelter. That’s Tom on the right and Mark on the left, if you can make him out:



This one shows our packs hanging from bear cables outside the shelter:




And this one shows a snail "attacking" Tom’s Glad-bag-wrapped pack before it got hoisted onto the cables:


We ate dinner at the shelter -- some of us cooking on our backcountry stoves and some of us opting for self-heating MRE’s -- but there was something about the lodge being so close that drew us back there. What they call an office is heated by a wood stove, open 24 hours, and much more like a community room than an office. There are tables and chairs and plenty of games sitting on the shelves waiting to be played. And though I don't know if it is there for ambience or actual use, there is an old loom that definitely looks cool:





We hiked back over there and hung out playing cards for a while. One table over from us, a large group of people were engaged in a serious religious discussion while, interestingly enough, drinking liquor from flasks and chugging wine from self-ported bottles.

As the sky grew dark outside, the room grew dim inside because there is no electricity at the lodge. Kerosene lamps served as centerpieces for the tables, and whichever ones people decided to light served as the room’s only illumination. Eventually we called it a night, zipped up our fleeces, pulled on our gloves, turned on our flashlights, and made our way back to the shelter in the dark. It was time to get some rest for the hike that awaited us in the morning.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

LeConte, Part One

Many people refer to the Great Smoky Mountains as “the Roof of Eastern America,” and with good reason: Inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, are sixteen peaks higher than 6,000 feet in altitude. By contrast, only one peak in all the other Appalachian states exceeds 6,000 feet. The highest in all of New England would not even crack the top ten in the South.

Among these giants, Tennessee’s Mount LeConte ranks as number three in the Smokies when measured by altitude; that is, by how far a mountain’s highest point sits above sea level. However, when measured by how tall a mountain stands -- i.e., how far its highest point sits above its base -- LeConte ranks as number one in all of America east of the Mississippi River. Its imposing, four-peaked massif dominates most views of the Smokies’ crest despite being only seven miles from Clingman’s Dome, the mountain with the highest altitude in the range.

For those reasons, and because you can not get to it by car, LeConte is widely thought of as the crown jewel of the Smokies. And it was for those very same reasons, or at least partly because of them, that my friend Mike and I decided to make LeConte the destination for this year’s version of our almost-annual hiking trip.

Unlike our fall trips in 2008 and 2009, more people came along for this one. Finney, who also accompanied us on our spring trip in 2008, was on hand. So too were Tom and Mark, neither of whom had backpacked before. My next two posts will detail the hike itself and include lots of pictures, but before writing those posts I am going to toss out a few more facts about the mountain:


  • In the 1920’s, when the federal government was considering establishing a national park in the Smokies, a local group brought government personnel to LeConte because they knew its sheer slopes and expansive views would “make the sale.”

  • Ecologically speaking, walking from LeConte’s base to its summit is the same as walking 1,000 miles from south to north. Its lower elevations have the same plants and animals you would expect to see in central Tennessee, while its higher, much colder elevations are inhabited by plants and animals of the Canadian forest zone.

  • Five different trails lead to its summit, and once there you have two options for remaining overnight: LeConte Shelter (a three-sided, tin-roofed structure with wooden ledges for sleeping) or LeConte Lodge.

  • Don’t let the word “lodge” make you think of Aspen. LeConte Lodge is a collection of huts with no electricity or running water. What it does have are comfortable beds, tasty meals in the dining room, old-fashioned kerosene lamps, and the nicest privies you’ll ever find. Supplies are brought up by llamas three times a week.

  • The lodge is about 300 feet below LeConte’s highest point and has never experienced 80 degrees -- the highest temperature ever recorded there was 78.

Like I said, my next two posts will feature lots of pictures of the hike, and therefore of Mount LeConte itself. But in the meantime I want to share two views from other points on our trip. This one was taken in the Tuskegee Creek Valley, along State Road 28 in Graham County, North Carolina:



The next one is video taken from my cell phone, of what is probably my all-time most unexpected wildlife encounter. Just after driving into Great Smoky Mountains National Park on our way to the trailhead, we rounded a bend in the Oconaluftee Valley and saw two bull elk locking antlers in a rutting duel. Elk are extremely rare in the East and I had never even thought about the possibility of seeing them in this spot.

We jumped out to watch and by the time I remembered my phone had video capability, the fight was almost over. I wish it had a better zoom, I wish it was in better focus, and I wish it was easier to make out the colliding of antlers (which was clearly audible in person) but hey, I got the most important part: The conclusion! And if you want to hear antlers, listen very closely to the first couple seconds. Here you go:






The next post will come in a few days to a week. Until then, enjoy your fall (or spring) wherever on the planet you are!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Ruminations

“One generation passes, and another generation comes, but the earth abides forever. The sun also rises.” (The Book of Ecclesiastes)

Part of me has always found a kind of solace in that Biblical passage. When I feel an early morning chill nipping at my cheekbones, or see moving nighttime clouds appearing shiny white against the black sky because of the light they reflect from a full moon, I cherish the moments and smile with the knowledge that they are timeless and eternal.

I know those little joys will always come round again, no matter what troubles I have to deal with in life. I know they existed for humanity’s enjoyment before I arrived on Earth, and I know they will continue to exist after I depart, and that knowledge gives me peace. It assures me that I am part of something much bigger than me, and that realization is comforting even though I can not pinpoint what that “something” is, even though my human brain is incapable of understanding the complexity of the divine.

However, being human, I also find that there is something troubling about the inexorability of time which is imbedded in that verse.

It seems like it was only yesterday that I was sitting with Sarah in the nursery at University Community Hospital, less than an hour after she emerged from Erika’s womb, telling her about all the fun things we would do as a family now that she had joined us. And already she is seven.

I can not believe that Parker is already turning four months old today. As I listen to him coo, and watch him observe ordinary household items with the kind of amazement only a newborn can possess, I am saddened by the realization that at our age we will probably never again have a baby to watch go through these stages. I am struck by the thought that “this is the last time.”

This month I climbed the tallest mountain (not the same as “highest”) in Eastern America -- an accomplishment I will blog about soon, and one that showed me I can still do the kind of things I was capable of when I was in my twenties. That hike was something I am still smiling about eight days after coming down from the mountain. Yet I know I am forty, and I know that means I have lived more than half my life expectancy, and I find myself thinking I better start living according to Satchel Paige’s advice: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.”

These mental meanderings and circular and will probably never resolve, so there is no reason for me to have written them this morning other than they were going through my brain. The good news is, positivity always defeats negativity and I refuse to be negative. And the comforting thoughts I remarked about outweigh, by far, the ones that seemed plaintive.

Life is precious. Let’s all resolve to enjoy it.

I hear Parker making noise, so I am off to get him up…

Sunday, October 16, 2011

College Football Seven Weeks In

As you may know from my previous post, Erika had a health scare the week before last. That put my usual mental state out of sorts, but then again, on the positive side, it improved my mental state by forcing me to remember my priorities.

Then, last week I disappeared into the mountains for my almost-annual hiking trip, which put my usual mental state even more out of sorts. When it comes to politics and world affairs, I have practically no idea what has happened over the last two weeks so I simply can not comment on those things.

Nonetheless, I do know what has been happening in college football. What little bit of time (and my brain) have been available recently to focus on anything other than Erika's health (or on my trip) have been spent keeping an eye on the game I love. So here are some of my thoughts:

For years I have thought that Texas is the most underachieving program in America and Mack Brown the most overrated coach in America. Now I no longer think those things -- I know them.

I can not believe how few people are talking about Penn State, and I can not believe they aren't ranked. They are 6-1 and their only loss was to #2 Alabama...and they played Alabama much closer than anyone else has played them...and they are a traditional power led by the winningest coach in the history of the sport...yet they are not ranked in either the AP or coaches' poll. That, my friends, makes no sense.

I am also surprised by how little attention Oregon is receiving. Last year they came within three points of winning the national title. This year they have won five in a row and their only loss was to #1 LSU -- in the opener, no less -- but nobody is talking about them.

Of course I have to talk about my Auburn Tigers, and I will begin by mentioning the story which broke last Wednesday but -- surprise! surprise! -- is not getting much media attention. The NCAA completed its investigation of all those pay-for-play allegations that got hurled around during the 2010 championship run, and it announced that it found no evidence of wrongdoing. Last year and into the early days of this year, the media spent months slandering Cam Newton, dragging the name of my alma mater through the mud, and all but predicting that Auburn would be stripped of its national title and Newton would be stripped of his Heisman Trophy. Auburn fans took the high road through all of this, overcoming the human impulse to lash back at the accusers.

And now that Auburn has been vindicated and the media proved wrong, the media has ignored the story of the NCAA findings, or at best, buried it in the back pages of their newspapers or closing seconds of their "news" shows. So now I am succumbing to human impulse and unloading what I have been holding back for far too long. To Bama sycophant Paul Finebaum; to standardless "journalists" Pete Thamel, Danny Sheridan, Thayer Evans, and Joe Schad; to radio blowhard Steve Duemig; to HBO; to all you miserable SOB's who referred to the 2010 Heisman winner as "Scam Newton"; to all you brainlessly unoriginal bloggers and blog commenters who wrote it as "$cam Newton"; to all you Bama fans who responded to Auburn's historic Iron Bowl triumph by saying "congratulations on the victory to be vacated at a later date"; and to all of the other haters I forgot to mention: Screw you.

Damn that felt good.

But back to this season. Before Auburn began playing its death march of an October schedule, I wrote that their defense was so weak it would be almost impossible for them to win any of the four games in their immediate future. Well, their defense has improved by leaps and bounds since then, and they have won two of the first three games in that four-game stretch I was talking about. Beating Florida last night was good as gold to me because it will shut up all the obnoxious, arrogant Gator fans I have to live with on a daily basis. I am very impressed with the way this year's team is coming together and consistently improving after replacing 16 starters from last year's national championship squad.

And here's a cool statistic about this year's Tigers: Through seven games, they still have not lost a fumble.

Lastly, here is the Stanton’s Space Top Twenty:


1. LSU

2. Alabama

3. Oklahoma

4. Clemson

5. Wisconsin

6. Boise State

7. Oregon

8. Oklahoma State

9. Stanford

10. Arkansas

11. Kansas State

12. Penn State

13. Nebraska

14. West Virginia

15. Virginia Tech

16. Michigan State

17. Georgia Tech

18. Auburn

19. South Carolina

20. Texas A&M

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Much Ado About Something


The past week has been a doozy.

Erika came down with what started as a mystery illness, landing her in the hospital from Wednesday morning until Sunday afternoon. I stayed with her each night and most of each day, and it felt like a real life House episode as they -- well, mostly Dr. Yun Tae Chang -- tried to figure out what was ailing her.

I am not here to share the details of her medical condition, but the symptoms and the possible diagnoses that got bandied about were very frightening. A definite diagnosis was finally established on Friday and the treatment is working. Fortunately, a full recovery is expected, though she must stay attuned to her body because there is a chance she was experiencing two conditions simultaneously. If that was the case, there is a chance of the secondary diagnosis recurring, which would land her in the hospital all over again.

The ordeal made us realize how blessed we are when it comes to family, not only our own immediate household but the rest of our family as well. With me staying with Erika, her sister helped our by watching Sarah while my mom helped out by watching Parker. To top it all off, we had car trouble while all this was happening and my father helped out there. When I had to run home to grab things, and when I had to run into the office for a few hours on Friday afternoon, Erika's mother was at her bedside so she would not have to be alone.

We are thankful to have our home back together again, and we can not say enough good things about the care Erika received at St. Joseph's Hospital North.

Love you, LOML!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Much Ado About Nothing

What was so extreme about Hank Williams, Jr.'s comments that ESPN felt compelled to pull his song from last night's Monday Night Football broadcast? Nothing. What is extreme is the chilling effect that this kind of politically correct censorship has on American discourse.

Every media report I have read states that Williams made comments "comparing Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler." The first big problem is, that's not true. The second, even bigger problem is that no one in the media is correcting the record.

What happened is that Williams thought it was stupid (his word) for John Boehner and John Kasich to go golfing with Barack Obama and Joe Biden. When asked why, he said: "Come on! It'd be like Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu."

That analogy is perfectly valid, even if it troubles the sensibilities of those who need a fainting couch anytime someone speaks their mind. Obama and Biden are partisan leaders of the Left while Boehner and Kasich are partisan leaders of the Right -- and each pair has spoken out loudly and strongly against actions taken by the other -- so, yes, they are on opposing ends of the political spectrum just like Semites (Netanyahu) and anti-Semites (Hitler) are on opposing ends.

But most importantly, Williams did not compare Obama to Hitler. He simply noted the chasm between Left and Right by using the chasm between Hitler and Netanyahu as an analogy. Was the analogy a bit over the top? Perhaps, but that is the norm -- not the exception -- when it comes to political analogies, and being over the top does not make it inaccurate.

It is disgraceful that the MSM is claiming Williams likened Obama to Hitler when he did nothing of the sort. When George W. Bush was in the Oval Office, one liberal after another routinely likened him to Hitler. The name "Bushitler" was even given to him, and became so common that it now has its own entry on urbandictionary.com and is referenced in at least 52 posts on democraticunderground.com. Yet I do not remember any member of the MSM ever even criticizing those analogies, much less taking an active stand against them like ESPN did against Williams.

To be fair, the alleged Hitler comparison is not the only comment Williams made to draw the ire of ESPN and the rest of the MSM. It is no secret that he is not a fan of liberal Democrat policies, and when elaborating on his point during the offending interview he said this: "They're the enemy, Obama and Biden." Hypersensitive liberals can be forgiven for thinking that meant Williams believes the POTUS and veep are in league with Der Fuhrer, but the MSM knows better and should be ashamed of their collective selves.

What Williams meant is that Obama and Biden are the political enemies of Boehner and Kasich. That is a simple fact. If some people think his use of the term "enemy" is inappropriate, they should be made aware that it was Barack Obama, President of the United States -- not Hank Williams, Jr., singer -- who first used the word "enemies" to describe political opponents. Obama did that in an interview almost twelve months ago, and during the same interview he said this about people who are in favor of border security: "Those aren't the kinds of folks who represent our core American values." That is far more slanderous and offensive than anything Williams said, and it was coming from a man who (unlike Williams) has power over people's lives and futures.

During his "hope and change" campaign in 2008, Obama said in a speech to supporters that they should talk to friends and neighbors "whether they are independent or whether they are Republican. I want you to argue with them and get in their face." But the MSM could not be bothered -- and still can not be bothered -- to point out how strikingly those words contrast with Obama's media-crafted reputation as a moderate and a uniter.

I have not seen Williams's tax returns, but I doubt he is hurting for money. Having his performance pulled from Monday Night Football for a week will not impoverish him -- nor will having it pulled forever, if that is what happens. But that does not matter, nor does it make what happened to him right. In fact, what happened "to him" will hurt others far more than it will hurt him, and that is what is wrong with this whole spectacle.

Williams said something that was not wrong, and was logical, but went against the politically correct narrative that is favored by the MSM. The MSM exercises enormous control of information in our country, and because they did not like what he said, they publicly punished him in the modern version of colonial era stockades. And rather than provoke the MSM's wrath by defending Williams, everyone has gone silent at best, or, at worst, jumped on the bandwagon by criticizing him as well. This is true even of his own son. Lay this spectacle on top of the long history of campus speech codes imposed by the Left, and Obama & Co.'s history of setting up web sites for people to snitch on their neighbors who criticize Obama, and the national narrative makes it clear that anyone who does not toe the liberal line is in danger of being targeted.

This message is not lost on people, and therefore people respond by censoring themselves or by qualifying every comment they make with redundant and timid phrases, like "but not every..." or "but not always..." In the end they do not feel free to speak their minds and thus do not do so, no matter how true and important their thoughts may be. They succumb to fear of stigma, and they -- and the country -- suffer as a result.

This is particularly insidious when you consider the one-way nature of the phenomenon. People on the Left never censor themselves and never feel the slightest obligation to qualify their statements, yet they pounce like wolves on anyone else who doesn't. They would love to outlaw free speech, but because that would be difficult they choose to silence it through demonization.

In my living memory, there was a time when no matter how strongly two Americans disagreed, there was a good chance of their conversation ending with each of them agreeing that "I disagree with what you are saying, but will defend to my death your right to say it." Unfortunately, that is no longer the case, and the fault for that spirit disappearing lies squarely at the feet of liberals like Obama.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Ahhh...Autumn!

Up North the leaves are changing color all over the place...In the heart of Dixie, trees atop the crest of the Smokies are coated in rime ice...Out West, a road in Rocky Mountain National Park has already undergone a temporary closing due to snow.

Here in Florida, fall's arrival is much less dramatic but every bit as noticeable. There has been a chill in the air each of the last two mornings and evenings. Meanwhile, the afternoons have brought warmth without heat and it has been mild enough to sit outside under bright sunny skies without sweating.

Yesterday I went outside with my morning coffee before the sun was up. I sat on the back porch, soaking up the chill, relishing the feel of not being rushed, and watched the sky gradually change from black to orange to blue with the rising of the sun. Sarah joined me just as the black was starting to fade, and for a six-year-old she seemed to enjoy the spectacle very much.

Today I rode my bike under a high-arching, sapphire sky that had not a single cloud, and the sense of autumnal verve was palpable. The leaves sounded crisp as they rustled in the breeze. Families with fishing poles cast their lines far out into our neighborhood ponds. The birds seemed to have an extra gear in their wings as they flapped about.

Each of Earth's seasons has its own special qualities, and I appreciate them without exception. But every year I become more and more convinced that fall is the most majestic season of all.

Monday, September 26, 2011

College Football Four Weeks In

We are four weeks into this college football season. And so far my expressed opinions have been met with facts that have proven to be, shall we say, humbling.

The day before the season started, I wrote this about my Auburn Tigers: “…I do believe they are way, way better than the so-called experts are saying, and I look forward to watching them prove those so-called experts wrong.” Well, the Tigers are 3-1 and have beaten a ranked team, which may not sound bad, but up to now their play has done more to prove the experts right than to prove them wrong. Their defense has looked so meek and flaccid that it is almost impossible to see them winning any of the games in the murderer’s row that is their immediate future -- when they face South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida, and LSU over the next four weekends, with only one of those games at home.

Also, I opined that “Central Florida is the most underrated team in America. By far. And they absolutely should be ranked.” And after I wrote that, Central Florida went out and lost two games in the next nine days.

On the positive side, I correctly predicted South Florida winning at Notre Dame and Oklahoma winning at Florida State. But those positives were overshadowed by a very dark cloud: the untimely death of Lee Roy Selmon.

So maybe I should hold off on opining about college football for the time being. But unfortunately, I can’t help myself. We are four weeks into the season, and I have always said that this is the week when we have seen enough action to start making educated assessments...so without further ado, here is the Stanton’s Space Top Twenty:


1. LSU

2. Alabama

3. Oklahoma

4. Boise State

5. Wisconsin

6. Oklahoma State

7. Oregon

8. Stanford

9. Virginia Tech

10. Clemson

11. South Carolina

12. Florida

13. Nebraska

14. Texas A&M

15. Baylor

16. South Florida

17. Florida State

18. TCU

19. Georgia Tech

20. Arkansas


Note: I wanted to comment on Texas A&M leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, which became official today, but I decided to wait and write about that in its own post. For now I will simply say that no matter what you think about conference realignment in general, Texas A&M made the right decision for them, and the SEC made the right decision when it opted to welcome them into the fold.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Autumn Equinox



Some thoughts about autumn on this, its first day:

I love stepping outside on that first morning that fall’s nip is in the air.

I love how changing leaves turn Appalachian mountainsides into fiery palettes of orange, red, and gold.

I love driving winding roads through those mountains, catching glimpse after glimpse of falling leaves as they twirl their way to the ground.

I love cold nights marked by the scent of campfire and the sound of wind in the trees.

I love watching my daughter skip through the pumpkin patch looking for the perfect one to bring home.

I love walking behind her as she trick-or-treats on Halloween night.

I love pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day, and how it sets the ideal tone to start the Christmas season.

I love watching flocks of birds land in Florida at the end of their migration, while others keep flying to points further south.

And last but not least, I love football, especially college games where the fans are loud and the bands are blaring…and most of all, where Auburn is winning and the fight song you keep hearing begins with the line: “War Eagle, fly down the field, ever to conquer, never to yield!”