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Heading For The Light

In recent weeks, the steady flow of images from Yours Truly began slowly diminishing to a near halt.

And it was no fault of my sometimes dodgy Honda Civic, a car that has developed a habit of starting when she darn well feels like it - with nearly 230,000 miles on her, I'm grateful that she even starts at this point. Somehow I made it through the entire fall foliage season without being stranded, even though the ol' Civic sometimes does nothing at all when I first turn the key. Yet, after a few tries, she eventually starts right up and goes. We've nearly pinned it down to a sensor issue, after replacing the alternator. I replaced the alternator myself - the first time I've ever installed an alternator, and it was really a fairly easy exercise, taking less than an hour (thank God for YouTube "how-to" videos, and thank God for Auto Zone, who provided me the tools to get the job done), though re-installing that blasted serpentine belt correctly was a challenge. It appears to be a faulty sensor on the negative battery terminal. The battery is not getting enough of a charge to start the engine at times, and that sensor appears to be the culprit. We tested the battery and alternator; and it wildly fluctuates from barely enough volts to crank to more than enough, and back again. Because I haven't been stranded yet; and because she still fires up, even after a failed time or two, I eventually told my local mechanic, "I'm just gonna keep riding this pony until she can't ride no more," grammatical error and all.

Though here in the south, the phrase "can't ride no more" is actually grammatically correct, as I've come to find from being around some of my hiking friends who've got this language called "Appalachian" down pat. My friends Christy and Mandy in particular have been instrumental in my progress. I'm not quite fluent yet, but I'm gettin' thar, I plum reckon.

But as always, I digress.

No, the lack of photos stems from the numerous wildfires that have broken out here in the south - all caused from a near total lack of rainfall, a few careless smokers or campers, plus a few yahoos who saw the fires on TV and apparently decided to indulge their love of pyromania. Which is seeming more the likely cause of many of the more recent fires by the day.

The first time I really grasped how bad the situation was getting was in early November, when I made an overnight getaway to Gatlinburg for some R&R, making the usual stops at the candy shops, the moonshine distilleries (the Ole Smoky Mountain Java is, in a word, incredible), and the Mountain Mall, doing my "social butterfly" routine - a far cry from my work persona ("all business, all the time"). Even we introverts (especially those of us who are the rare and enigmatic INFJ's) enjoy some social mingling every once in a while; so my stops to the busier side of the Smokies are a welcome departure from my "head down, keep to myself and stay busy" routine at the day job. Suddenly, I come out of my shell and become an extroverted comedian (with really awful punch lines mind you, but again I digress).

On my way out of Gatlinburg I wanted to capture a panorama of the city, as the fall colors were nearing peak, surprisingly in early November. But when I couldn't even make out Mount LeConte or any of the higher peaks in the Smokies through the smoky haze - which were no more than 15 miles away and easily spotted on most any other day - that's when I suddenly realized the scope and reach of these ever-increasing, ever-expanding wildfires:

Later that day I scoped out the Foothills Parkway and "Tail Of The Dragon," the ever-popular winding stretch of US Highway 129 in Tennessee, and things weren't much different there, either:

Folks, it should be noted that what you see in the above image is not clouds, but smoke. The skies would have been perfectly blue otherwise. And when I made my way to a chokingly smoky Fontana Lake just down the road, I ran into one of the culprits of all that smoke, plumes rising in the distance:

The fires were literally everywhere, expanding daily - from East Tennessee to North Carolina to South Carolina to Georgia. Seemingly dozens of them. With low humidity, dry foliage on the forest floors, and zero rainfall, the entirety of the Cherokee, Chattahoochee, Nantahala, Sumter, and Pisgah National Forests had become, in essence, highly flammable.

Any photo opportunities from that point forward were highly contingent on wind patterns and opportunities to breathe without choking. I had attempted to escape the smoke on a few occasions - a hike to Max Patch here, a drive to Craggy Pinnacle or Hot Springs there - and yet, there was really no escaping. Even in the prettiest of images, the smoke was still prevalent.

That point was brought home to me by my friend Caitlin, who is an executive assistant for the Blue Ridge Parkway and handles the social media for the Parkway as well. As you may know, I am one of the volunteer photographers for the Parkway; and when I tried to submit one of the images I took at Craggy Pinnacle, Caitlin brought some perspective:

"The photo of Craggy from this week is beautiful and sad. I'm not sure of how to use it without referencing the obvious layer of chokingly thick smoke below. This is such a strange time. I want to use our social media platforms to educate and inspire and inform, but I feel like a broken record these days and I don't want to leverage this crazy time into page likes any more than you do."

And I totally agreed with her.

So from that point forward, I decided not to post any more images of the smoke from the wildfires on my social media pages for the sake of likes or tagging on Instagram to get additional exposure. Any images taken regarding the wildfires would be for documenting purposes only (such as the images shown here in this travel/hiking blog), would not be submitted to any media outlets, and would not be put up for sale in my online galleries. People's lives were being impacted, including my own. The environment was being impacted. And I sure wasn't going to drive out of my way to places like Lake Lure or Dillard, Georgia to shoot images of the fires either. There was enough documentation of these fires already. The idea of taking sweeping, dramatic night images of mountains literally on fire for the sake of commerce, or even the hope of exposure on major news outlets - no matter how eerily beautiful they were - simply would feel totally wrong in the face of their impact on others.

Plus, I felt very strongly that some in the news media were irresponsibly sensationalizing some of these photos and videos of the fires taken by other photographers, only for them to be shared everywhere, particularly through social media - in turn perhaps, unwittingly inspiring some lunatic pyromaniac somewhere to start their own fires and gain their fifteen minutes of sadistic fame. The "Copycat Effect," as coined by author Loren Coleman. The recent fire at the very popular Chimney Tops in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park seems to be an example of this, as it appears to be arson. And that fire alone has all but choked out nearby Gatlinburg, as the town is buried under a thick, ominous layer of heavy, orange smoke as I write this (November 28).

I'm about as Reagan-esque, free-market-capitalist as it gets. But there's a fine line between documentation and exploitation, and I felt that was a line I didn't want to cross. I would love to have a major breakthrough in my photography, but not on the back of a situation such as this.

I decided instead to go through my enormous backlog of images taken over the years; and, if I found a gem or two, post those in lieu of anything "smoky," just to keep the ball rolling.

Some rain finally rolled through just before Thanksgiving Day, helping to clear out some of the smoke, and giving an assist to some of the firefighters who have been working overtime.

And since I had Thanksgiving Day free (my family is currently scattered all over the continent, at least until Christmas), I had an opportunity to maybe get a few "keepers" in. I decided to make a run on the Parkway north of Asheville before heading out to Roan Mountain to get a little hiking and shooting in.

Along the way I noticed the thick clouds remaining from the overnight rain were creating potentially great conditions for some nice light rays; and with the low angle of the sun, those rays were gonna stick around for the duration of the day.

When I arrived at Craggy Gardens, the lack of smoke and clear, distant horizon there was a refreshing sight:

I had hoped not to see any smoke as I continued north, but further up the Parkway at Laurel Knob, there was some very nice light and color. And yet, there was that nagging, smoky reminder in the distance:

And unfortunately, all I had to do was turn a little to my left to see more billowing smoke, as helicopters with dangling water buckets scrambled to help control the blaze:

If you look closely at the above image, just above the tall peak at right center, you'll see a couple of distant objects. That was one of the two helicopters I saw fighting the fire, with the dangling water bucket, as can be seen better in this 100% crop of the same image:

As ever, my prayers go out to all those brave souls going above and beyond, trying to control these fires. Hopefully the nice soaking we are forecasted to get in the next few days will help bring this nightmare to a close.

I drove on to Roan Mountain, where the wind had blown whatever lingering smoke there off into the distance. All I had to do was hike, breathe deeply, and enjoy the lovely light show from Round Bald and Jane's Bald on the Appalachian Trail:

On the way back from Jane's Bald and down to the Carver's Gap parking area, the winds began to shift and the clouds began to move out, giving me a chance to catch some blue in the sky as I peered back to where I'd just came from:

I had thought of driving out to the Tri-Cities area for dinner, but my plan for after hike grub at Golden Corral didn't materialize; so it was off to the only fast food joint in the area nearby that was open - a McDonald's in Erwin - for some p̶i̶n̶k̶ ̶s̶l̶i̶m̶e̶ Chicken McNuggets before heading home. I'm pleased to report I suffered no indigestion as a result of eating said McNuggets, but again I digress.

In all, I enjoyed a nice, relaxing day in the mountains for my Thanksgiving; as I was highly appreciative for not only the (mostly) clean air, and for getting to and from my destinations safely, but for another lovely light show provided by the Giver of light.

And with the much needed rain on the way, here's hoping for more days of fresh air and light......

UPDATE at 10:00 on November 28: I have heard numerous reports of high winds blowing fires into the city limits of Gatlinburg, with many structures on fire, including the area around Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and the Park Vista Inn. The area around downtown Gatlinburg is being evacuated, according to WATE TV 6 out of Knoxville. And rain showers are about an hour away. If you are reading this around this time, pray, pray, pray.......

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