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Chasing Winter

For the better part of the latter months of 2015 and even into the new year, it seemed as though the expected cold weather in the Smokies and High Country - heck, the entire southeastern United States in general - joined the bears in hibernation. There I was on Christmas Day, sporting a t-shirt and shorts, walking along Dauphin Island, Alabama for a sunset shoot - the outside temperature a toasty 78 degrees.

I was half-seriously debating whether or not to bring the sunscreen. But I digress.

By contrast, winter paid my neck of the woods an early visit in late 2014, as we Haywood County folks were treated to a nice little dumping of snow on November 1. Granted, most of it melted before the day was out, but hey, it was snow. We also got a nice snowfall on Thanksgiving, and I found myself driving back in that nasty stuff at night after spending the day in Chattanooga with a girl I was dating at the time. For the better part of winter 2014-2015, it seemed as if we received at least one measurable snow per week, even if it was a dusting. One could imagine the conversation among the locals:

"Hey, it dandruffed again last night."

"Yeah, but we're supposed to get four inches tomorrow night, so we're good."

Until the last week or two, winter had never really kicked in. We'd get a tease, like just before Thanksgiving when rime ice made for incredible views in the high elevations of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which stayed mostly open through December and well into January, a very rare occurrence.

But finally over the past two weeks, that tempestuous weather child called El Niño decided to stop pitching a fit, bringing winter in all its snowy, frigid fury back our way. Cue the heavy coats, the thermals, the hoodies, the beanies, the gloves, the face masks, and a slight loss of common sense. That usually happens when one tries to drive in said wintry elements, but again I digress.

So I felt a slight tingling of joy when coming snowfall in the High Country of North Carolina coincided with my off days at work. Time to explore and go on one of my favorite winter pastimes, a "snow chase."

I actually had one particular shot in mind, over at Grandfather Mountain near the town of Linville. The forecasts seemed to indicate that the snowfall would end early afternoon Sunday, the skies clearing out at night. I wanted to get a long exposure of the snow-capped mountain under moonlight, but everything would have to occur just so. I made a rough sketch of what I wanted to do, but the forecasts changed again Saturday evening, and the planned shoot at Grandfather - at least at night, anyway - would have to wait. It appeared that the heavier snowfall would be on the Tennessee side of the Appalachians, on the western slopes. I booked a room in Johnson City instead of Linville, with plans to venture on Roan Mountain, situated on the Appalachian Trail.

I awoke Sunday to about a half-inch of snow in my backyard, further bolstering my excitement for the day. I got off to an early start, thinking I would stop at Grandfather Mountain anyway just to have a "look see" before heading on to Roan; but as so often happens, my spontaneity kicked in and I decided (since it was early) to take a peek at Max Patch Bald, also on the Appalachian Trail, and fairly close to home.

As is so often the case after a snowfall, the North Carolina DOT road crews did a wonderful job of clearing the roads, so my trek on Interstate 40 was worry free. I exited at Harmon Den, the gravel forest service road that would take me to Max Patch for my first stop. There was plenty of snow on the road, but being gravel I still had a great deal of traction since the accumulations were light. At least in the low elevations.

However, as the grade steepened, the road narrowed, and the snow deepened, things got dicier and dicier. And icier. I managed to drive about 75% of the way to Max Patch, and......

......the wheels started spinning. There was nothing for my tires to grab on to any more. The snow was just too thick, the grade too steep.

Now came the fun part - turning around, and getting back down. And it wasn't quite as easy as throwing it in reverse, either. I was about a hundred yards away from a place where I could make a u-turn, but that required a very careful turn around a corner and down a steep slope, plus a hope that no one would be coming in my direction. I put it in neutral, using my brakes judiciously to ease my descent until I reached the turn around, then gingerly put it back in drive, bumming out as I made my way back down the forest service road.

I decided to content myself with some images of the stream that runs parallel to the road:

After driving back to safety, I thought of taking the back route to Max Patch, a very lengthy drive from the Fines Creek area. But I felt God overrule me on that, so I made my way north on NC Highway 209 instead, in hopes of maybe salvaging a shot or two. It snowed as I drove into the higher elevations of the road known as "The Rattler," a take off on the more popular "Tail of the Dragon," AKA US Highway 129 that snakes through the Appalachians some hundred miles to the southwest, a favorite of bikers and thrill seekers.

Temperatures held steady in the mid-20's, the road seemed fine, at least until I saw a troupe of emergency vehicles and state troopers trying to extricate a driver from their SUV that apparently had slid off the road. I slowed it down considerably then, even when another troupe of sand-and-salt trucks roared through further up the road. I snagged a quick shot from one of the overlooks, but it was more of a "Robert was here" shot than any artistic statement:

As I made my way through Hot Springs, then across I-26 to Burnsville, I still had designs on Grandfather Mountain. The snow throughout the area was patchy, and not very photogenic. It was just after I passed Burnsville that once again God stopped me in my tracks, and I decided to head to Roan Mountain. Grandfather would have to wait for another trip.

You might ask, "How did God stop you in your tracks?" Simple - it was a gut feeling I had, a very uneasy feeling that I shouldn't carry on further. I trust that God guides me in the paths I take. I wholeheartedly live by this verse:

"The steps of a man are established by the Lord, and he delights in his way." ~ Psalm 37:23

So it was off to Carver's Gap and Roan Mountain.

The road to Roan was mostly ice free right up to Carver's Gap - and that's where everything changed. The road there was clear, but everything else surrounding me - well, it would give Siberia a run for its money. It was immensely foggy, windy and frigid. At Carver's Gap, my temperature gauge read 18 degrees with at least a 20 MPH wind, placing the wind chill at near zero, with enigmatic snow/ice pellets pounding away. It was clearly a different world up here, as evidenced by the images I captured:

I used my compact Nikon D700 camera for most of these images, and in fact I kept it outside my bag and on my tripod for the entire hike. It's a testament to the build quality of a Nikon professional camera that it accumulated an icy glaze through the duration of my time on Roan, and yet it kept firing away, seemingly unfazed by the elements. The only refuge I had for the entire hike was the heavily wooded area of the Appalachian Trail near Carver's Gap, which almost seemed like a frozen studio of sorts. There was no wind here; just the tall trees and one loony photographer trying to capture wintry nature at its most extreme:

In snapping this shot, I failed to remember the slow shutter speed I had set on the D700 in the low light, so I became an enigmatic blur. I rather liked the resulting effect, as it gives the impression of movement against a static background.

Let me stop here for a moment to say this - I make no claim whatsoever to be some expert hiker. Far from it, and that's not what this image is about. Yes, I do hike, but it's for the sake of my art, not to show the world how much testosterone I have. I'm into capturing beauty, not adrenaline rushes. It's fun no doubt, but hiking is not in my top five of things to do, despite the fact that I've dropped a considerable amount of weight since last summer.

I nearly reached Round Bald on the AT before once again I felt that tug from God, with that small, still Voice telling me quite plainly, "It's time to turn around and head back." I vacillated for a second, because I really wanted to go further, at least to Jane's Bald, but I decided to heed that Voice and turn around.

And wow.

I felt the fury of all that icy weather on the way back down. The wind was at my back on the way up; but now, on the way back, it was slicing right through me. I hurriedly got back to my Honda Civic at the Carver's Gap parking lot, and it was then I understood why God told me to high tail it out of there - it was snowing heavily, and accumulating on the road as well. Time to say a prayer - "Lord, keep me safe" - and head back down the Tennessee side of Carver's Gap on Highway 143.

And boy, was it a bear.

I noticed a family in their Subaru Outback parked at an overlook on the way down, and I briefly peeked over to see the horrified look in their eyes that said, "What on earth are we doing, and why are we here?!?!?"

I understood where they were coming from. The Tennessee side of Carver's Gap was decidedly more treacherous than the North Carolina side. There was a single tire track I followed all the way down, one that wasn't quite as icy as the rest of the road, but icy all the same. I had to keep my speed very slow - I had no choice - but that meant copious use of my brakes, even in a lower gear, as the descent and grade were fairly steep. I sensed my brakes were overheating, even in the frigid conditions, so I prayed, "Lord, help me find a spot to cool my brakes down." Again, in that small, still Voice, He said, "Just up the road." I thought I would find a pull off, but instead the road leveled out considerably, allowing me to take my foot off the brake pedal for a minute or two. When the aforementioned Outback got a little too close for comfort further down the road, I again asked God to find me a pull off, and sure enough, there was one about a hundred yards from the point where I asked Him, so I pulled aside and let the Outback and an F-150 truck pass through. The road improved dramatically after that, and I stopped at the Scotchman's convenience store in the valley to calm my nerves with an Herbal Cherry Dr. Enuf - my favorite soda, only sold in the immediate Tri Cities area - a small consolation for enduring all that icy fright.

As I made my way back to my room in Johnson City, I noticed some light rays peeking through the late afternoon sky, so I turned again on to Gap Creek road near Elizabethton. It was there that I managed to capture those light rays in all their glory, capping off a productive day before I settled in for the evening:

My reward for all that wintry travel was a Mellow Mushroom Pizza (what else?), but once again I chased after winter glory and found it, despite my love/hate affair with the season.

Well, I'll just say winter is in my good graces, at least for now.......

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