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A Spot Of Winter

Winter is always the toughest season for photography - at least for myself, anyway. If you've kept pace with my blogs, you already know that winter and I are engaged in a sort of "peaceful co-existence" - in other words, I (mostly) don't like it, but I cope as best I can. So I count the days and salvage whatever images I can until I see the first spring blooms, so I can give the wintry season the send off I think it deserves:

"Don't come back now, ya hear?"

Since winter isn't too willing to give up its grip here in the Smokies until, oh, mid-April, I have no choice but to cope and adapt. The barren trees and brownish landscapes don't usually inspire great images, unless you're lucky enough to run into a compelling sunset or wintry scene somewhere.

I could go chasing waterfalls, but I prefer shooting the more sweeping landscapes that hiker friend John Forbes calls my "wheelhouse," the types of images I've done with basic point-and-shoot cameras as far back as the mid-2000's, and long before I ever thought of picking up a digital SLR and being a "pro" photographer. And since practically everyone within the greater Tennessee/North Carolina photography/hiking community chases after and shoots waterfalls seemingly every week anyway, I tend to shy away from them with an exception or two, and that's only if I can capture a certain nuance or something special that separates my images from the rest of the herd. No offense to anyone, but I avoid doing what everyone else does, just because they're doing it. (it's like the old saying, "Well, if everyone jumped off a cliff, would you?"). If you know me, I prefer to do my own thing and march to a slightly oddball beat. Because I'm an oddball. And Jesus loves me anyway. So there.

Besides, most of the waterfalls I've seen tend to resemble each other and run together after a while, so I often feel like I'm repeating myself. And since I get bored easily, waterfall trips are a diversion for me - an exception to the norm - rather than a weekly destination.

The roads I often travel in the warmer months are closed; so the Blue Ridge Parkway is (mostly) out for driving, as well as some of the access roads to places like Max Patch or Unaka Mountain, places situated along the Appalachian Trail that are noted for their otherworldly beauty.

And yet, with all my whining about winter and brown landscapes and redundant waterfalls and shut-down roads........just because those roads are closed doesn't mean I won't get off my duff and do a little hiking on them if I can capture something of note. For instance, snow showers blanketed my area on Monday; but that didn't stop me from parking at Soco Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway, hiking the mile or so to Thunderstruck Ridge Overlook, where I was met with some dramatic skies, snow falling in the distance:

So I decided to approach my off day Thursday with that very mindset - I wasn't going to let winter's limitations (or my whiny reservations about the season) stop me from accomplishing what I set out to do.

A snowstorm left my area with a few inches of snow, and much more than that in the high elevations. Monday in particular was a bit tricky, so the rather mundane things I'd set out to do - to get my venerable Honda Civic an oil change and a couple of tires - had to wait a few days. I wisely kept it close to home. Plus, I needed to get some work in on Tuesday and Wednesday anyhow.

So Thursday came, with clearer skies and still chilly temperatures, but with a few free hours ahead for exploring after I'd gotten my business done. Before I got the Civic the "tune up" it needed, my body needed a tune up too. It was off to South Asheville for a visit to The Joint Chiropractic Clinic and the reliable Dr. Hightower for a spinal adjustment. The repetitive stress of getting in and out of my car dozens of times a day, plus the workouts I do (I usually do 150-200 pushups a day, 50-75 squats with 35 pound free weights, among other exercises) left my squeaky 44-year-old joints making more noises than a 1971 Chevy Nova with a bad muffler. If my body were a jukebox, it would be playing a lot of really bad jazz, but I digress.

(By the way, if you recall the story of why the Chevy Nova sold so poorly in Mexico, it's because the Spanish words "No va" mean "It doesn't go." More or less like my body sometimes, but again I digress....)

Dr. Hightower twisted, contorted, and manuevered me into a pretzel; my neck in particular making a very loud crack, followed by a brief jolt of pain, then relief. After his adjustment, I could actually turn my head again without a headache. I was rear ended by a drunk driver back in 2011, my neck bearing the brunt of the impact (whiplash); so even to this day if I go too long before getting adjusted, I have difficulty turning my head, at least without pain - the same with my lumbar spine too. Just like hiking and shooting in the winter, it's something I deal with. Whether or not the impact from the wreck made me even more loony than I was before is up for debate.

My Honda Civic is fast approaching 200,000 miles in less than four years; so just like my creaky body, I try to keep it in optimal shape. I plan on driving it until it falls apart, so I have to keep it humming along, or at least clunking along, just so long as it gets me from Point A to Point B.

The Honda dealership in Johnson City, Tennessee has always been my choice for maintenance, even though it's an extra 45 minutes from home. The scenic drive up Interstate 26 from Asheville, up over Sam's Gap and back down to Johnson City, is always sublime - so traveling the extra miles is never a bother. As always, the guys at the dealership took good care of "Ol' Faithful." The Mellow Mushroom pizza parlor just down the street on Roan Avenue took care of my appetite afterwards, so with that fullfilled feeling it was off to expore a bit.

My objective was to catch a sunset on Unaka Mountain, located near the town of Erwin and situated along the Appalachian Trail. I'd toyed with the idea of going back to Roan Mountain, as my time there recently was truncated quite a bit due to weather and road conditions (see my blog "Chasing Winter"), but Unaka Mountain was much more convenient since I was already in Johnson City and closer to Interstate 26 - which of course was my route back to Asheville, and ultimately, home. And the weather was far more cooperative, too.

Besides, I'd previously captured some rather epic scenes on Unaka, particularly the open area along the Appalachian Trail called "Beauty Spot;" and from my two previous visits there, one with my hiking friend Mandy Norton and another a solo venture, It's hard to argue with the name:

I arrived at the Appalachian Trail parking area on the Tennessee/North Carolina state line just after four, giving me a couple hours to hike to Beauty Spot to capture the sunset I'd been gunning for.

And as it turned out, I needed every minute of those two hours, too.......

With the snow cover, hiking straight up the forest service road seemed a better idea than taking the Appalachian Trail. I knew that by the time I was done, it would be near darkness; so trying to wind my way back in the dark on a narrow, snow covered trail with white blazes on already snow-covered trees, even with a head lamp......ehh, not a good idea.

As I began my journey there might have been an inch or two of snow on the road, but it's all uphill - the further I hiked, the deeper the snow. A couple of cross country skiers who hiked the road before I arrived had laid out a "track" of sorts for me to walk within so I wouldn't always be ankle deep (and later, shin deep) in snow. But looking down, even with my sturdy (but not waterproof) Columbias and thick socks, I wasn't going to avoid wet, icy feet, no matter what I did:

It was going to be a slow-going slog no doubt, but I didn't come all the way here to turn back just because the snow pack slowed me down. Especially since I'm a stubborn old ox and all. It was one heck of a workout for my legs for one, and considering I'd just offed a massively high-calorie-yet-highly-tasty pizza, the calorie burn was actually quite welcome.

And the lovely, wintry view on the road ahead of me was also a nice bonus too:

The road to Beauty Spot is only a little over two miles, but with the snow pack, the cold, and my heavy back pack full of gear, it felt more like ten. The ski tracks that had been a big help ended about two-thirds of the way up the road, so the final third of the hike was through shin-deep virgin snow, by now my hiking shoes totally wet, and my thick socks beginning to feel soaked and icy. It was at that point that I began to get concerned about frost-bitten toes, as air temperatures hovered in the upper teens and low twenties.

Just as I had begun thinking of the possibility of getting to Beauty Spot too late to capture a sunset, I saw a forest service road mileage sign, indicating the spur road to my destination was just ahead. After another hundred yards or so, there it was - leading me to the promised land. And just in time to catch a sunstar before the sun retreated behind the distant ridge:

And after the sun set behind the mountain, the skies lit up with some nice colors, spiced by the wintry trees and ridges:

I knew getting down was going to be far easier and quicker than coming up - again the only concern was my feet from trudging through all that snow. The big toes on both feet started to ache a bit (better than feeling numb I suppose), but as I descended and the snow depth let up, my feet felt fine. I just took my shoes off as I got back in my car, grabbed a spare pair of dry socks, and warmed my feet with the heater vent under the dash, my shoes drying out over on the passenger side vent.

I drove back home that evening with a nice satisfaction that my little wintry adventure paid off with a few "keepers," which in these frigid and often uncoooperative months is no mean feat.

But this guy is still jonesing for spring, so hurry up and get here now, ya hear?

Correction: In my initial publishing of this blog, I mistakenly referred to my chiropractor as "Dr. Cartwright." When I went back in today (2/25/16) for another adjustment, I looked at his business card as I paid, and embarrasingly realized his last name was Hightower. I think my confusion stems from the fact that he resembles Admiral Cartwright from Star Trek IV and VI (I'm a bit of a "trekkie," so there's my excuse.)

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