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:



video


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.