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


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... 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.