Drive like a Tourist

Drive like a Tourist

If you look closely, you can see that the speedometer reads 42 mph. (The speed limit on this part of the parkway is 45 mph.)

Ah, the power of words! Writing about fall photos inspired me to do something I have never done as an Asheville resident: search for fall color along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The last line in A Tale of Two Photos got to me: “Now is the time to capture these golden days–whether with camera or words.” Even though my husband had a long to-do list for his day off, I persuaded him that we should hop in the car and go look for leaves. (He pointed out that there were plenty of leaves in our driveway, but he agreed.)

Instead of listening to his suggestion that we hike down in Brevard or up at Craggy Pinnacle, I insisted that we use the recommendations in the weekly Fall Color Report. At that point, the report was six days old, but surely those experts knew more about fall color than my nose-in-a-book husband. We had a limited amount of time, since I wanted to be back to cook dinner for my daughter, who had too much homework to accompany us. That ruled out the Cullasaja gorge, but we could still try for the Black Balsam area, past Mount Pisgah. We grabbed walking sticks, water bottles, cameras, and Bojangles chicken. Off we set!

Our destination was Black Balsam Knob (elevation: 6, 214 feet), which, according to the report, should offer brilliant colors. Since we were in tourist mode, we turned off at several overlooks as we drove west on the parkway: the Bad Fork Valley Overlook, the Pounding Mill Overlook, the Cherry Cove Overlook. My son got excited about the out-of-state license plates, especially when we saw the same cars at multiple overlooks. Having moved to this area when he was five, my husband found it painful to play the role of a tourist, but David soon was happily pointing out beautiful patches of red or yellow or orange leaves. (Despite the name of my site, I’m no tree expert, but we saw mostly white oaks, red oaks, and maples.)

After eating lunch at the Mount Pisgah picnic area, we drove on, stopping at more overlooks to photograph Looking Glass Rock. Not far past Mount Pisgah, however, we noticed that we were seeing more empty branches and fewer golden and orange leaves. My husband said thoughtfully, “You know, I’ve always heard that the 15th to the 20th is the best time for color.” Today was October 21st.

By the time we reached the Black Balsam area, I suspected that we had driven too far: at this elevation, the color had “peaked.” Nonetheless, we parked at the end of Black Balsam Road and started walking down Flat Laurel Creek Trail. Although we saw many red maple leaves on the ground, the limbs of the deciduous trees around us were bare. After hiking a short distance, I looked at my husband and pleaded, “We could hike this trail any time, but I was hoping for a fall-color hike today!”

By now, it was too late to take winding Highway 276 farther down into Pisgah National Forest, where we could have hiked at Pink Beds or Looking Glass Rock. Since we would drive past Fryingpan Mountain Lookout Tower on our way home, my husband suggested that we hike there. I prefer a path through the woods to an old service road, but the weather was so perfect that I couldn’t complain about the rocky, uneven trail.The last time we climbed this 70-foot tower, David had been too little to go up the steep metal stairs. He insisted that he didn’t want to climb the tower, but, by the time we got there, he had changed his mind. It was a windy day but beautifully clear, and we had amazing views at each stage of our climb up the old tower, built in 1941 and listed on the National Historic Lookout Register. If the photo seems a bit crooked, put it down to my shaking hands.

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View from the Fryingpan Mountain Lookout Tower (taken with my iPhone 5)

As we walked back to our van, a young couple passed us on their way to climb the tower. We warned them about the wind, and they just smiled. Headed east on the parkway, we stopped at an overlook or two for more photos. Suddenly, I realized that I had failed to get a picture of one of the many stone tunnels along this section of the parkway. My husband began to drive more slowly, looking for a place to pull off near a tunnel so that I could get out and take a picture. His hesitant driving irked the driver of the car behind us, who started following closely and even honking intermittently. As soon as we could, we pulled into a overlook and let him go around us. These locals are in such a hurry!

Enjoy the slideshow of photos, taken with my Nikon CoolPix L320. Believe it or not, I weeded out some pictures.

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A Tale of Two Photos

With apologies to Cole Porter, I love Asheville in the fall.

With apologies to Cole Porter’s song, I love Asheville in the fall.

When my sister and I posted fall pictures to Instagram on the same day, I was not surprised. Her New England region is famous for “fall color,” while tourists flock to my part of North Carolina to admire the flagrantly colored leaves. You can even consult a weekly Fall Color Report to find the trees at their most brilliant. As I drive down the Blue Ridge Parkway, I remind myself to be patient with out-of-towners who are ambling down the road. Long-time locals like my husband call this time of year “Leaf Season.”

But it was eerie that my sister and I simultaneously posted an atypical fall picture on our respective Instagram accounts. Within three minutes of one another.

My photo was taken by a gravel sidewalk at a community center.

Sweet Gum Ball on the Sidewalk

Scattered Leaves on the Sidewalk

Hers was shot outside an urban grocery store.

Yellow Leaf

Yellow Leaf (Photo by C. M. Dennis)

 

My initial reaction was, “She just one-upped my Instagram picture!” (I’m sorry to say that I posted a snarky comment to that effect.) Then, I realized that: a) she must have been posting her photo at the same time; b) she would never deliberately upstage me; c) her picture wasn’t necessarily better than mine. She does have an architect’s eye, which is why I love following her on Instagram.

Not surprisingly, the two photos reflect our personalities. Too impatient to plan, I went for a wild melange of leaves, twigs, acorns, and–the crowning glory–a prickly ball from an overhanging horse-chestnut tree. Like my approach to life, my view of fall is a glorious mess.

In contrast, her photo cleverly juxtaposes the rough tree bark with smooth tile and speckled concrete. One graceful arc cuts across the vertical panels. Christie’s fall photo has the feel of a carefully composed still life. The leaf is a brave flag of yellow, buoyantly defying the civilized world.

It’s not a contest, but her picture wins. Hands down.

Unless I continue The Tale of Two Cities analogy: in that scenario, disheveled Sydney Carton ultimately triumphs over disciplined Charles Darnay. Yes, Darnay is chivalrous, but Carton gives up his life for the girl he loves. Is it cheating to cast my picture as Dickens’ noblest hero?

Regardless of who posted the better photo, I love the fleeting season of fall. Too soon, the short-lived show put on by the trees will end. Now is the time to capture these golden days–whether with camera or words.


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Giants of the Appalachians

Given this blog’s homage to Joyce Kilmer, how could I not devote a post to the mighty trees of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest?  Born in New Jersey, Kilmer had no connection with North Carolina, but the 3,800-acre forest within the Nantahala National Forest was dedicated to him in 1936, as a memorial both to his poetry and to his service in World War I, where Kilmer paid the ultimate price for his patriotism.

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My oldest son and youngest son, ready for adventure!

In the summer of 2012, accompanied by my husband and two of my sons, I made the two-hour drive from my house to visit those Appalachian giants.  Alas, the June day was unseasonably warm, so the first part of our two-mile hike through the forest was less pleasant than anticipated–particularly after my oldest son was attacked by a stinging insect shortly after we started the figure-eight trail. (The cheerful photograph on the right was taken at the trailhead.)

Not only were the humidity and bugs an issue, but, on the lower portion of the loop, there was less shade than I would have expected in a famous forest. Later, I learned that in 2010 the United States Forest Service used dynamite to remove many dead hemlocks that had fallen victim to the invasive woolly adelgid and posed a safety hazard to visitors.

Eventually, we made our way through the blasted remnants of the dead hemlocks to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Plaque, which was a good place to take a short break from hiking. P1020716 P1020717

Now that we had entered the Poplar Cove section, I began to understand why this old-growth forest was worth a two-hour drive. While California’s coastal redwoods may be older–and the cool climate more pleasant to the perspiring hiker–nothing makes you realize your insignificance like standing next to a tree that is 20 feet around and 100 feet tall. How long had these trees been here? How many silent-footed inhabitants had they witnessed, before the settlers came?P1020721

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As we worked our way along the loop to the trailhead, something happened that accelerated the last portion of our hike: quite unexpectedly, my husband’s cell phone rang, followed by a call on my cell phone. Since we were out of the service P1020718area, the calls were lost almost immediately, but the number was not a familiar one. At the time, our three middle children were on an inner-city missions trip in another state. Little wonder that we both thought the worst and increased our pace for the last leg of the hike. While I retain a few memories of the enormous trees, of the amazing straightness of the tulip poplar trunks, of the leafy greenness of the woodland, what I mostly remember is intense anxiety as we rushed through the forest that we had invested so much time in coming to see. I did take a few photos of the memorial plaque as we passed it on the return trip; there were also two trees whose curiously intertwined roots had taken David’s fancy, so I spared a few seconds to photograph them.P1020726P1020729

But our enjoyment of the outing had ended with the ill-timed phone calls and their reminder that life was relentlessly being lived outside the boundaries of the forest. As it turned out, neither my husband nor I had cell service until we had driven well out of the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, my husband pointing out the road signs in both Cherokee and English as we drove. Eventually, we were able to listen to our voicemails. Predictably, the calls had nothing to do with our children. I still am not sure whether or not we should have had our phones on silent: what if there had been an emergency? Yet our hike was–if not ruined, at least made hostage to the pressingcares of this world.

One day, I hope to return to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest–without a cell phone, with a water bottle, and with enough time to stop and go rafting in the cool, wild waters of the Nantahala River on the way home.
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I Think They All Should Be California Trees

Having passed the half-century mark myself, I was recently privileged to view some trees that are a lot older than I am. The old-growth, coastal redwoods in Muir Woods National Monument range mostly from 500 to 800 years in age, with the oldest tree being at least 1,200 years old. (We didn’t notice which tree WAS the oldest on our recent afternoon tour.)

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These aren’t the drive-through redwoods: you have to go farther inland to see those tremendously wide trees.  But the beautiful quality of light streaming through the umbrella-like upper branches of the trees in Muir Woods more than repaid the effort it took to get there. Actually, it took considerable effort: first, we had to rent a car and drive across the Golden Gate Bridge. Once we’d driven the curvy roads to the monument itself, we were dismayed to realize that a lot of other folks had had the same idea. Not only were the smallish official lot AND the large overflow parking lot full, but parking on the shoulder of the road went on for more than half a mile past the parking lot itself.  In the end, our car was parked nearly a mile from the official lot.

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But it was still a golden afternoon–golden and green. The weather was amazingly temperate in the woods: sunny without making us hot, breezy without making us cold. Despite the number of visitors, we never felt crowded as we slowly walked along the old trails, frequently pausing to look up at the branches above us. My youngest son was delighted when, near the end of the main loop trail, we noticed a cluster of people quietly watching some activity on the wooded area above the trail. Sure enough, a doe and her fawn were placidly eating, undisturbed by the audience they were attracting.

P1060292P1060282My husband wisely advocated that we take the Hillside Trail, which seemed less popular with the masses. Although it was not suitable for strollers, we saw a couple of men with two toddlers and a large stroller, gamely tackling the steep dirt paths. My sympathies were with the young kids, who were actually helping one of the men lift the stroller over some roots; for whatever reason, the other man was not helping at all. On the Hillside Trail, we found a couple of trees with an opening large enough to stand in.  Leafy ferns and thick patches of enormous clover bordered the paths, and, again and again, we marvelled at the glorious quality of the light streaming through the leaves and all around us.

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If I lived in San Francisco, I would try to visit the Muir Woods often.  There were trails that we did not have time to take: Muir Beach, where we stopped to eat a picnic lunch, is not far away, and one tantalizing trail led to a vista of the sea. Evidently, it rains quite a bit in the Muir Woods in the winter, but my husband thought even that would be something to see. For now, we will treasure our memories of a quiet walk through the gentle giants of coastal California.