Saturday, May 31, 2014

Semper Fi

This is a dog I do not know.  This is a dog who unconditionally accepted me as her friend with a single sniff.  This is a remarkable dog and a sad dog.  She has a home, but she abandoned it in a heartbeat in order to follow me for three miles down the MST in the vicinity of Elkin, NC.  And all I did was utter a kind word and reach out my hand.

In response those expressive, soulful eyes met mine square on, and she formed an instant bond.

Exhausted, panting, so hot she plunged herself into every roadside puddle and mud-hole along the way, she followed me relentlessly though I gave her no further attention.  She would not give up, even when I crossed and hiked down busy four-lane US 21 into Elkin.  She was savvy about traffic--moving far off the road when she saw or heard approaching cars.

After those three miles we reached my van and she willingly hopped into it as soon as I opened the door and made a few encouraging gestures and sounds.  She found and settled on the mattress in the back as if she had done it a million times before.  So I shot a few photos and then drove my new friend back to her home.

Wow.  This is unconditional faith.  Semper Fidelis.  Forever faithful.  Look how willingly she posed with my 'hat of the day'  Hat number eight.  (We'll cover hat number seven in a bit.)  I have to believe that my new trail friend will remember her sojourn with me for the rest of her days.  I know I will.

What's uncanny about this is that she was not the first, not even the second, but the third dog to bond with me and follow me for multiple miles down the road today.  And before the dogs it was the cattle.  These guys followed me along the fence line for a quarter mile, mooing and lowing and hustling along as if I was their messiah.

What's up with me?  Was it the hat?  Humans see me with this hat and also form an instant bond.  "Semper Fi."  I've heard it from strangers over and over every time I wear this hat.

The hat was a roadside find, on Shaw Highway near Holly Shelter Game Land while I was scouting a defunct old route of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail about 15 months ago.  The adjustable strap was broken, so I repaired it.

I live near Camp Lejeune - a massive Marine Corps Base.  Marines are a big contingent of the population.  I'm sure it was one of them who originally owned this special hat.  I, on the other hand, never served in the military.  So in some sense I feel like an imposter when I wear it.  But I rescued this hat from permanent oblivion so that it can proudly display its message again.  I settle with this: it's not about me, it's about the Corps.  By wearing this hat I am thanking them for their service and dedication.

Now, about the hike venue and setting.  This report covers two days of hiking, nearly 20 miles each.  The first hike took me to Elkin, where I hiked their urban off-road trail and was taken through their bustling, energetic, historic downtown.

The second hike took me from Elkin to the front gate of Stone Mountain State Park and the end of all significant road walking on the MST.  From here it's almost all off-road trail.  This is a major milestone.

So lets go back to the first hike, which I accomplished wearing 'Hat number Seven'.  This hat is also a trail find--it sat beside NC 58 between the MST and the beaches of Emerald Isle for many months, gaining a distinctive sun-bleached pattern on the bill.  I found it this month (May 2014) while on a side trip which included a connecting hike from the MST at Buck's Corner Road to the barrier island.  Here's 'Hat number Seven' perched on the upright ears of the Easter Bunny somewhere east of Elkin:

And adorning a roadside gatekeeper horse and a meditating Hindu.

As far as nature's contributions to this pair of hikes, I can offer a Great Blue Heron fishing the downflow of a dam in Elkin ...

... my first sighting of my favorite blue flower - purest blue by my arbitrary judgment - the Chinese Dayflower ...

... and the first comprehensive view of the Blue Ridge:

Tomorrow the Blue Ridge will be under foot.  I've arrived.


Here's the map of the route covered in these two hikes.  The title line is a link to a much more comprehensive slide show.

MST Days 63 and 63 - Elkin and vicinity at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in North Carolina

Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Adventures of Hat number Six

It began with this forlorn little bear with a broken-off right ear sitting in the ditch beside the road.  He was more than happy to pose with his deformity hidden by my hiking cap.  So he became my first subject for today's sixth installment of the ongoing 'hat of the day' series.

Hat number Six was a gift from my kids.  Though I worked at NASA for a quarter century, I never felt any need or desire to 'flaunt' my NASA-ness to the rest of the world.  So it wasn't until around the time of my retirement that my kids decided it would be a good idea to NASA-ize me.  So now this cap is part of my rotation of twelve hiking hats, and is the sixth that I'm featuring on this blog.

When you're walking roads (as opposed to trekking through the woods), as I was all day today, you find lots of willing subjects capable of doing justice to a good hat.  Today they ranged from an angelic cemetery guardian, through a classic cigar store Indian, to a nefarious looking local 'stuffed shirt'.

Hat number Six also provided a backdrop for my lucky find of the day and added color to the Ararat River.

Otherwise today consisted of hot and sweaty walking on very quiet country roads.  But I wasn't able to enjoy the peaceful rural corner of southern Surry County as much as I might have.  I had a visit from a local lady sheriff who checked my ID and informed me that there had been several break-ins in the area and so 'everybody's calling in anything suspicious'.  Some people in this area do seem to have a tendency to break and enter, if this seriously disrespected gate is any indicator:

So for a few hours after that I felt unseen eyes leering at me from behind every drape and curtain.  Fortunately by the end of the day I seemed to be out of the target area and was able to fully enjoy the historic little town of Rockford, with its Civil War era tavern and the quirky general store where the Indian in the photo above resides.

And as the day waned, so did my views of Pilot Mountain.  Here's one last parting shot:

Road walking doesn't seem the best venue for viewing wildlife, but today I helped two box turtles get safely across the road, and encountered a juvenile Black Rat Snake enjoying the warm pavement as well:

With more road walking ahead tomorrow, I just hope I don't continue to be 'profiled'.  It's no fun being considered guilty for 'hiking while male'.


Here's a map of today's hike route with a link to a slide show:

MST Day 61 - southeast Surry County at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in Pilot Mountain State Park

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Hiking Pilot Mountain State Park

Pilot Knob is an eye catcher.  It's evocative of the buttes out west such as those in Monument Valley, AZ or Devil's Tower in Wyoming.  The Mountains to Sea Trail has recently been rerouted to take a wide swing around the slopes of Pilot Knob.  It doesn't get too close to the summit, or even to the base of the daunting wall surrounding it because the trail that gets close is not a through-trail, but a loop, and because there's no trail to the summit at all.  In the 70's an existing metal stairway was dismantled when it became unsafe.  Bottom line: the MST does not get as close to the mountain as the photo above shows.  That photo was taken from Little Pinnacle Overlook, a heavily used access point that is just a short walk from the upper parking lot at the end of the park road.  And as you can see from the bare trees, this photo was taken at another time--when I visited the park in January 2012 on my way back from a short break in my Appalachian Trail thru-hike.

The peak of Pilot Knob is over 2400 feet in elevation.  The Mountains-to-Sea Trail route gets no higher than about 1600 feet, so it's a significant side trip to get up to the overlook area, but if the visibility is good, I'd recommend it.

The MST uses the red blazed 'Mountain Trail' that and the blue blazed 'Grindstone Trail' to circumnavigate the mountain.  The Mountain Trail is being upgraded - rerouted and lengthened to include a little longer route and to avoid some eroded sections.  I hiked this new route today although it is not finished or officially opened yet; and it's a nice improvement.  For the westbound MST it departs from the blue blazed Grindstone Trail about a mile from the Park Office/Visitor Center at this fork.

The right fork is the Fire Line woods road, occasionally marked with these 'blazes'.

Where the Fire Line road dead-ends a new trail route has had the brush partially cleared and is marked with red surveyor's flags (little plastic rectangular flags on metal stems) stuck in the ground.  This new section runs for a whole mile and almost precisely follows the 1500 foot elevation contour around the mountain until it intersects with the existing red blazed 'Mountain Trail' where it comes down some steep, eroded, rocky trail from the Grindstone Trail.  I'm not recommending that hikers follow the unfinished new route because they could get lost.  But the GPS track I produced by hiking it shows the future route.  To hike the current route, I suggest that the hiker get the latest information from the park office.  They have a first-class free map showing topography and all the existing trails in great detail.  It's much, much better than the maps available online.  It's easy for the westbound hiker to stop in and get one of these maps as they enter the park from the Sauratown Trail. The eastbound MST hiker doesn't have that luxury.

The rest of the MST route through the park is on a wide, almost road-like rolling gravel horse trail through the woods.  This is called the Corridor Trail, and it follows a narrow strip of park property for 5.6 miles between Pilot Mountain and the Yadkin River.  Only this part of the park trail is currently signed and white-circle-blazed as the MST.  In addition it is marked along the way by engraved wooden mileposts.

Just as the MST does not go near the summit of Pilot Knob, the MST doesn't get close to the Yadkin River either.  Westbound it leaves the park at Hauser Road  beside the huge horse trailer parking lot.  That road walk -- about two days to the town of Elkin -- begins tomorrow for me.

At the beginning of today I hiked a 2 mile road walk to get into the park from the east--a detour of a closed section of the Sauratown Trail that went over private land until it reached park property.  But that road walk provided some fine views of Pilot Mountain:

I hiked out of Stokes County and into county number 18 of my westbound Odyssey.

And the route took me past a willing subject who agreed to pose with my 'Hat of the Day' perched on his antlers.

'Hat number Five' is another trail find - found near Bearfence Mountain on the AT in Shenandoah National Park in early October 2012.  It commemorates the previous soccer World Cup, held in South Africa in the summer of 2010.  I'm a big soccer fan, and plan to work my hiking schedule around the 2014 games, which take place in Brazil beginning in just 2 1/2 weeks.  I can't wait. It's a once-in-four-years event, like the Olympics.  And for the rest of the world it's as big or even bigger than the Olympic Games - arguably the most important sporting event on the planet.

I've never played soccer - I only began to pay attention to it when my daughter began to play club soccer at a young age and continued it into high school.  So for me soccer is a spectator sport.  But everybody needs a participatory sport.  I suppose you can guess what mine is.  I'll be doing fifteen or twenty more miles of it tomorrow :-)


Here's a map of the route I hiked through Pilot Mountain State Park - another reminder that this route is partially on trail that is still under construction, so not recommended for others to follow until it is opened.

MST Day 60 - Pilot Mountain State Park at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in North Carolina

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Sauratown Trails

In all my hiking experience I've not run across anything quite like the system of trails that the Sauratown Trails Association has put together.  It's all on private land and they're constantly dealing with re-routes where land owners decide to withdraw their permission.  On either end of their 22 miles of trail that coincides with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail the trails appear to be seldom used.  I felt like I imagine Earl Shafer or Dorothy Lake might have felt -- early pioneering thru-hikers of the Appalachian Trail.  There's a difference, though.  Almost without exception the Sauratown Trails are well marked and signed.

Near the west end of the trail, at the intersection of Coon Rd. with Volunteer Rd. the trail meanders through an area of horse stables, which feels like the epicenter of the system--its heartbeat, and perhaps the property of one of its strongest supporters.  Yet this property is not available for public parking.  On the other end of the trail, where two sections are closed and require temporary road walks, the parking and picnic facility they call the Sauratown Trail Center is gated, locked, overgrown and entirely abandoned.

My favorite parts of the trail were in the middle, what they call Sections 9, 10, and 11, where there are some cool views of Pilot Mountain and the less photogenic Sauratown Mountain from a private gravel drive called Mazie's Lane ...

... and where the trail climbs halfway up the side of Sauratown Mountain following a nice 'gurgly' stream through deep shady thickets of rhododendron and mountain laurel and then along the mountainside on rocky trail through open forest of chestnut oak.  This part entirely felt like the Appalachian Trail and might have well been in national forest land because it felt so completely wild and far from civilization.  It's not a photogenic place, particularly, so I have no photos.  You can't photograph a feeling (or at least I can't).  You have to be there.

There are a couple of 'get your feet wet' stream fords across shallow gravelly stream beds with no stepping stones, one where there had been an amateur suspension bridge, now washed out.

The trail passes one nice waterfall among some interesting giant boulders, and walks a couple of public gravel roads.  On Thore Road you pass the overgrown little Thore Cemetery.

Here I took the opportunity to showcase my hat of the day.  Hat number Four was a chance find.  A Hunter's hat-once bright yellow-with a Honda logo-that I found along the Appalachian Trail in SW Virginia during my thru-hike in January, 2012.

Tomorrow it's Pilot Mountain State Park and more off-road trail.  I'm beginning to feel spoiled.


Here's a map of today's hike, just 12.5 miles or so:

MST Day 59 - Sauratown Trails at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in North Carolina

Hiking Hanging Rock State Park

I couldn't have picked a better moment to hike the Moore's Wall loop - the high point (literally) of the trail system through Hanging Rock State Park.  It was like hiking in a fairy garden.  Above 2000 feet elevation the dominant understory plant is Rhododendron and they were all in full bloom:  Below that it was the Mountain Laurel coming into bloom.  The photo above was taken around the transition point.  Note also how well constructed and fully erosion-stabilized this trail is--a rare example of the right way to build trail.  But back to the fairy garden scenes. I can't resist sharing a few more:

The view from the summit is panoramic and today the visibility was fine.  Here's how Sauratown Mountain (the closer one with all the towers) and Pilot Mountain looked from the top.

There's an observation tower at the top, and there were plenty of folks who took the 1.6 mile hike up here on this holiday weekend Sunday.  It felt good to be an footpath with fellow hikers rather than almost completely alone as I had been at Falls Lake and Greensboro.

The park is named for Hanging Rock which is on a 'dead end' trail that the MST doesn't visit. But if you watch for it as you hike the park approach road, you get a good glimpse of it. (This is a telephoto shot.)

Other shots I wanted to share: A picturesque tree atop Moore's Knob, a view of Moore's Knob from below as I hiked the first bit of the Sauratown Trail, and Hidden Falls, one of two great waterfalls that the MST passes in quick succession.

Finally, here's my 'Hat of the day' entry.  Hat number Three perched on one of the twin frogs being pursued by an amorous female caterpillar.

Hat number Three was purchased about 15 years ago on Bald Head Island, NC, an upscale resort island at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.  It's actually the tip of Cape Fear, which is why I wanted to visit it. The island is accessible only by passenger ferry and devoid of motorized vehicles except for a few staff vehicles.  You rent a house there and it comes with a golf cart.  Trams deliver you and your luggage to the doorstep from the ferry landing.  The letters BHIC in the turtle logo on the hat stand for Bald Head Island Conservancy.


Map of today's route with link to more photos is below:

MST Day 58 - Hanging Rock State Park at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking near Winston-Salem, North Carolina

Sunday, May 25, 2014

A thousand feet

It took fifty-seven days of hiking, but I finally reached this lofty elevation today in the little hamlet of Meadows.  It was not exactly a mountain--more a flat plateau separating watersheds, as the name of the place suggests.  But as I descended from Meadows down to Danbury the terrain had changed.  It seemed mountainous - as it should since within a mile of Danbury there are mountains as high as 2000 feet.  After taking two months to reach 1000 feet, tomorrow I'll be up over 2500 feet on Moore's Knob in Hanging Rock State Park.  Yippee!  It's been a long time coming but I'm back in real mountains.

Today's hike was all road walk centered on the interesting town of Walnut Cove with an old-style downtown but also all the amenities one could hope for.  I highly recommend the independent drug store in the Food Lion Shopping Center called Hicks Pharmacy - super friendly people - and they have a great grille inside called the Red Rooster that only the locals know about--there are no signs (that I saw anyway).

Two miles north of town is Whicker's Grocery, a stop recommended by Scot 'TABA' Ward in his old guidebook.  It's another great hiker stop.  I stopped in and bought a bandana and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and sat on the woodpile in the shade for a spell.

In fact there were groceries and convenience stores about every mile or two throughout the 17 1/4 miles of road I walked.  Didn't take photos of any of the others.  Instead I took photos of trivial stuff that caught my fancy.  First among those is a set of 'portraits' taken for my 'Hat' series.  Here are three shots taken with 'Hat number two' -  ' Hat with roses', 'Hat with iconic guardian lion at the gate', and a shot of a quirky scene--'Hat on the Pretty Little Dutch Girl's Boyfriend as he tries to get fresh with her beneath an ominous warning sign.'

Hat number Two is an official product of the AT Conservancy and I bought it at their visitor center in Harper's Ferry, WV in June 2012 when I was en-route to home by car during a break in my thru-hike.

Today I also passed this elaborate roadside memorial for young Lester Levine, age 15, who passed away 9/13/13 along with a presumed friend named Brandon, surely both in the same accident.

I saw something rare that most people probably couldn't care less about, but I'm always on the lookout for botanical variants, sports, and other vegetative oddities that could be commercialized.  Here is a very rare pink Japanese Honeysuckle.  The leaves even carry hints of purple.

And lastly I let my imagination ramble with this street sign.  Remember the famous statement attributed to General Phillip Sheridan (Custer's boss): "the only good indian is a dead indian"?  Well as I saw this sign I was imagining a Walnut Cove local denizen telling me 'Hereabouts, The only Goode Road is a dead-end road'.  Yep, when you're strolling along hour after hour, the mind tends to go wonky sometimes.

So I'm in Stokes County now--county number Seventeen--and tomorrow it's Hanging Rock State Park.  Weather looks to be great, though I'll be dealing with Memorial Day weekend crowds.  I can't wait.


Here's a map of today's hike with a link to a couple more photos:

MST Day 57 - Walnut Cove at EveryTrail
EveryTrail - Find the best Hiking in North Carolina