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Approaching Winter

For the better part of the last few months, I was in a funk and I needed to find a way to break out of it. Heck, if it took gettin' down wit' my bad self, dancing like a freak to some James Brown funk in order to break out of my funk, then funk yeah. Gotta get the funk out.

Okay, I just ran slap out of horrible puns; and besides, I have two left feet anyway. I'm a lover, not a dancer. Seriously, if you saw me dance, you'd collapse in uncontrollable laughter. Right after I collapsed while trying to dance.

But as always, I digress.

What I soon came to recognize was that I had sort of wormed my way back into the cocoon I had emerged from about a year and a half previous. I got caught up in trying to be "successful photographer" instead of being "loyal friend," and I came to a place where I found myself by myself nearly all the time, by my own choice. I was literally working seven days a week, between the day job and the photography, with little time for friendships in between.

Thankfully, a sweet friend of mine who lives nearby helped me to emerge from that funk, though I'm sure she doesn't even realize it. Just going to her house and hanging out while she watched episodes of "Smallville" on Hulu, bringing her a bottle of her favorite wine on occasion, chatting about the latest developments in her life, or listening without prejudice to what was on her heart, was good tonic for my soul. It was nice to again invest in someone other than myself, as I had realized that I had again wandered off into that dangerous self-involved territory. Just by being herself, she helped me emerge out of that dark place to a significant degree; and for that, and her friendship, I am grateful to her, and to God for blessing me with her.

My renewed attitude made Christmas all the more enjoyable, as I reunited with my scattered family in Mobile, Alabama for a couple of days; reconnecting, enjoying the time, and being thankful for each moment, each laugh, and yes, each slice of cheesecake. Of which I had many, but again, I digress.....

I carried that boosted spirit into the new year as well; and with the first real taste of wintry weather approaching, I could let loose and get back to the fancy free mode that defines the best of my work.

On Friday, January 6, weather forecasters were breathlessly predicting an abundant snowfall for my vicinity - anywhere from four to seven inches of the white stuff; and sure enough, by the time I left the day job Friday evening at about 7:30, the predicted snows had come and began to accumulate. Since I live about 500 feet in elevation above the main road in Maggie Valley, I decided to park at the bottom of the hill to give me easy access to that main road, US Highway 19, or as the locals call it, "Soco Road," come morning.

Sure enough, there was between four and six inches of snow blanketing the area when I awoke Saturday morning; and the only vehicles out on Soco Road at the time were the ones who could actually navigate them - the monster four-wheel-drive variety, and not the piddly two-wheel-drive small cars like my old Civic that was buried under that snow.

So, since I couldn't drive, I walked; and as the sun began breaking through the clouds as the last snowflakes fell, it added some drama and needed light to the wintry wonderland I found myself in:

My favorite barn, in its winter guise. I've shot this barn with blooming rhododendron in the spring, with fall foliage, plus with both fall foliage and snow at the same time (Mother Nature was a tad confused that day). But this was the first truly pure snowfall image of the barn I've captured, at least one that I deemed worthy of my portfolio.

As I walked, I was of course wary of the characters who wanted to drive faster and wilder than the conditions would allow - the "Hey, hold my beer and watch this!" types - so as one weaving and bobbing driver in a pick 'em up truck approached, I quickly retreated to a relatively safer spot off the shoulder, at least until ol' Evel Knievel was well past. I lived to see another day. Hopefully, the daredevil did, too......

With my continued emergence from the cocoon, I had been back in touch with some of my Tri Cities hiking friends, notably my friends Christy and Angie, both of whom I had not hiked with in well over a year. They invited me up initially for a hike in the vast and wild landscapes of Linville Gorge, located in the North Carolina "High Country," but the forecast conditions - high winds and temperatures in the teens, not to mention the snow cover - forced a change of plans.

So we settled on Margarette Falls, located near Greeneville in Northeast Tennessee. I had hiked there once with the Tri Cities group and enjoyed it; and the thought of the falls with at least a hint of winter excited me.

As it would turn out, we found ourselves with more than just a mere hint of winter, much to our delight.

The morning drive there was partly cloudy yet frigid - my drive into Tennessee was, shall we say.....interesting. I found myself on the Tennessee end of Sam's Gap on Interstate 26 driving no more than 30 MPH down a steep, icy grade towards the more docile conditions of Erwin, hoping none of those "Here, hold my beer" guys were going to suddenly emerge behind me.

So after I was through hyperventilating, I met with the ladies at the trail head to begin our wintry journey.

And what a journey. The snow had piled up even heavier here than at home, at least ten inches in spots as we made our way to the main attraction, Margarette Falls. As we hiked our way up the canyon and under the canopy of snow covered trees, the lighting became ideal for shooting the wintry conditions, and the creek along the way did not disappoint:

A technical note here: folks ask me how I manage to get a balanced exposure even with the blinding white of the snow, as their snow images often appear blown or washed out. My simple answer is this - I always underexpose my snow images by a click or two to prevent blowing highlights, plus I run each RAW file through Adobe Camera RAW twice - once outside of Photoshop, and once again as an adjustment layer inside Photoshop. It gives me the ability to get the full dynamic range of the RAW file, maintaining a nice balance between highlights, shadows, and color, and keeping it as close as possible to what I saw. (A RAW file is essentially the digital version of a color negative in film; and just like a film negative, a RAW file must be developed, albeit digitally)

And the main attraction? Just wow......

This was as close to a perfect hike as it gets - ideal lighting, enough difficulty (particularly in snow) to get a good workout, and one lovely scene after another, with good company to make the time most enjoyable. Both Angie and Christy are lovely, passionate souls and good friends....

But again, I reiterate - in the truest sense of the word, I am not really a "hiker;" so I don't call myself "hiker trash," I don't have the latest or greatest gear, I don't follow all the trendy stuff, heck I don't even wear hiking pants (I often just wear jeans). I'm a photographer and writer before anything else; and hiking is simply a conduit to seeking and capturing beauty if need be. I don't need adrenaline rushes, or have a need to demonstrate my testosterone levels to the world at large. At best, I claim to be an amateur or novice hiker, with enough common sense to know what to do or not to do along the way.

Since I was staying over night in Johnson City (I wanted no part of I-26 at night after my icy morning tangle) Angie invited me to join her the next morning for a hike at a place I passed by often, yet never checked out - the Rock Creek recreational area near Erwin.

I met Angie and our friend Mary at a local restaurant around lunch time, then it was off to the trail head, where another friend Larry joined us soon after the hike began.

The snow wasn't as deep as Margarette Falls, yet the degree of difficulty was a fair bit greater, as the grade was steeper - a 1,500 foot climb in elevation in under two miles, plus some tricky and icy creek crossings to boot. Yet the scenery was much the same as the day previous.

When we arrived at the main attraction, the upper falls at Rock Creek, it felt as if we were entering a cold studio, complete with icicles and untouched, virgin snow. As it turned out, we were the first since the snowfall to arrive at the falls, so we took advantage:

I rarely pose for selfies or group photos, yet I relented here, setting my timer then scrambling to get in position before the shutter snapped (I'm the one at far right, next to Angie in red):

It was indeed a refreshing, fun, yet challenging two days of wintry hikes plus the good company that kept my spirits high.

And given my much noted ambivalence towards winter, having such good friends around to share great experiences with should make the toughest season of the year that much more enjoyable.......

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