Tuesday, April 16, 2013

After the Morning After

 North Carolina comes through again. Having trudged through 200 miles of fog yesterday all through Virginia – your remember Virginia: my least-favorite state due to its questionable politics, overeager state troopers, those ugly-named suburbs of DC, and Shenandoah National Fog Park – I awoke today to a Virginia invasion across its southern border. In other words, Wildcat Rock was still enveloped quite thickly in fog. In fact, after turning out all the car lights last night the fog still seemed to glow even though there weren't any signs of civilization for miles. Spooky.

With no Plan B, I just kept on going down the Blue Ridge Parkway, knowing that the forecast called for “AM clouds / PM sun” and that the road would be rising higher than in Virginia, which might put me above the fog. Apparently I also had the sun on my side, as it burned off all of the fog by the time I stopped in Boone (yes, a real place name – as is “Gooch Gap”) at 9:00. Of course, by that point I had reached the one stretch of the Parkway that I was able to drive last year so there was nothing new to see. I was even there at the same time of day.

 Even so, it was time for my first hike with Latke – a short half-mile loop to a rocky outcrop called Beacon Heights. Not to be confused with Beacon Hill, which is actually a more challenging climb. More importantly, I learned a great deal about how Latke does on a leash in the woods. Apparently she thinks she knows leash commands very well, since she did the same thing whenever I said the same things: Come on = stop sniffing the dirt and catch up to me, Latke = stop what you’re doing (eventually) and go wherever I’m going, wait = wait (this one she’s actually got correct), Go = run really fast for 3 steps so you don’t get stepped on, sit = completely ignore the human. It’s a start, and now that I know her associations, I can start changing them up to get her to do what I actually want with each command. I’ve already taught her “Go in the car” this week, which she does on the first try when I say it with a treat in hand.

Next up was Linville Falls. This one was a carryover from last year’s itinerary, where it was listed with several stars. I’m not exactly sure why I did that because, while impressive, my day would have been just as exciting if I had skipped it. This one counted as a real hike, clocking it around 1.8 miles round trip. From the various viewpoints I got some pictures of the falls themselves, and failed miserably at getting a good picture of the dog. Note how none of the commands listed above include a definition like “look at human to see what he wants next.” So I now have plenty of good pictures of the side and back of Latke’s head.


After visiting Linville Falls and crossing the famous Linn Cove Viaduct – the last segment of the road to be completed, only 28 years ago – it was time for the day’s big hike – Crabtree Falls. Many websites argue that if you only have time to see one waterfall in North Carolina, it should be this one. The reviews were so enthusiastic that I put it on the list even though both sides of the trail include several switchbacks.

Once I arrived at the waterfall, I saw that the trek thus far had been worth it. So I pulled out my tripod and started looking for my ND filter – which darkens the lens, allowing you to take longer exposures and get those nice smooth waterfall pictures. I found a polarizer and 2 ND graduated filters, but no regular ND. I had brought everything I might possibly need except for the one essential accessory that I knew in advance I would definitely need. So I tried to get as long an exposure as I could with camera settings and those graduated filters (which are dark on one end and clear on the other, so you can darken just half of a picture, like the bright sky in a sunset image). In the process I may have gotten a couple of good ones, but I know that I definitely dropped one of the filters into the river.

The Crabtree Falls trail is an odd trail, a 2.5 mile loop where the falls fall less than a mile into the trip and the return journey is nearly twice as long. Both I and the one other person on the trail were considering taking the shorter first half back until I realized that both sides would have to gain the amount of elevation. Simple geometry dictates that doing this over 1.6 miles would be more pleasant than doing it in 0.9. In the end, the 1.6 wasn’t all that pleasant either.

Leaving the Crabtree Falls area, the Parkway’s elevation increased to its highest so far – over 5,000 feet in a few places – as did the quality of the views it offered. 

All this culminated with the spur road to Mount Mitchell State Park – conveniently located just before the fences, gates, and ominous “Road Closed” signs. I guessed this would be the end of the road for me for tonight.

Mount Mitchell isn’t the most famous mountain in the eastern half of the country, but it’s the highest nonetheless. At 6,684 feet, it’s over 400 feet higher than Mount Washington although it’s surrounded by other mountains that decrease its prominence and it doesn’t have quite the same ridiculous weather. It’s definitely a place where a weather forecast might include the phrase “in and out of the clouds” though, as evidenced by the fact that, despite being featured prominently in 3 Parkway overlooks, the first time I was able to see the summit was when I was standing on it.

Even though it was only around 5:30 when I had finished exploring Mount Mitchell, I decided that this would be the place to get some good sunset pictures. The only hitch was that I’d have to be quick, since – as longtime readers should know by now – mountain weather changes rapidly. The clouds that covered the summit – which I assume were caused by the mountain, since they only extended a few hundred feet above the summit – poured quickly off its sides and into its extremely crowded parking lot.

So when the first few clearings happened, by the time I had the camera ready and the necessary ND grad filter in position (See? Told you it was good for sunsets.), the clouds had returned. Still, I wasn’t concerned. Since the mist was so thin, once the sun started coloring the rest of the sky the mist, too, would start glowing.

About this time, Latke started loudly voicing her discontent with sitting in a car for what must have seemed to a dog like at least 3 eternities. Even after bribing her with dinner, rawhide chips, and even the meaty bone I was saving for tomorrow at the campsite, she kept right on whining. Finally, after putting on a truly ridiculous display of sad puppy faces, she earned her freedom from the car.

Turns out, she wasn’t interested in coming out of the car, per se. She just wanted to play! And because she’s easily entertained when playing, all it took were a few mutual fake pounces and a couple of tugs on her leash and she was running around in circles as fast as she could (Don’t worry, for her this isn’t a sign of anxiety – it’s her favorite activity besides sleeping).

Once the real show started, Latke had to take a backseat by returning to the front seat while I prepared to capture what I was sure would be a spectacular sunset. 

But by the time the sun sank behind a cloud with about 20 minutes to go (thereby depriving me a chance to see the mountain cast a 20-mile shadow to the east), I was worried that if it briefly reemerged I would miss its effects because of the mist. Thus began the great light chase of the evening. Blatantly disregarding the posted speed limit, I raced down to the first sub-cloud overlook I could find.

Not bad, but the sun clearly was done for the night. But since these are the Blue Ridge Mountains & Friends, I had a feeling that some blue hour pictures (which come right after the sun has set) would turn out well, too. In the end, I think I like these better than the sunset ones.

From there, I put my trust in Copina to find me a way into Asheville without taking the closed section of Blue Ridge Parkway. As much as I’ve praised her in the past, lately she’s proven that she’s 100% robot when calculating detours. Going back north on the Parkway, after telling me to turn around at the first 5 overlooks and plow through the closed section of road, I convinced her to let me go around. But clearly she doesn’t factor in switchbacks or road surface when calculating routes, because this is how she sent me towards I-40:

Yes, that’s an 11-mile road through a national forest and down the Blue Ridge escarpment by way of 11 switchbacks and at least 4 one-lane bridges. But what it doesn’t show is that the road was gravel the entire way 2,600 vertical feet down. I would have been angrier, but after my travels this summer I knew that this poorly-maintained forest road was still a far better drive than anything in Nova Scotia. What did get me a little miffed, however, was when I hit I-40 and immediately drove back up the Blue Ridge escarpment into Asheville. So to review, in its next firmware update, Garmin needs to allow users to avoid steep, unpaved, windy, narrow roads in the dark and allow them to prefer routes with the least elevation change (for the record, there was a relatively flat route into Asheville, and it’s not that much longer).

Looking ahead to tomorrow, it should be pretty epic. The weather looks good, save an afternoon thunderstorm which would be fun and could produce a good sunset. Before dinner I’ll have visited 4 waterfalls and 3 states. After dinner I’ll be visiting a mountain summit with no trees or self-sustaining clouds to obscure its 360-degree view. Maybe if I’m lucky I’ll even get some dark sky viewing in.

I’ll even try to bring the right camera filters this time.