When I originally added this goal to the list, I had no idea what it would entail. It has the good kind of ambiguity that lends itself to interpretation. At the same time it’s such a juicy goal there exists the pressure come out with a great story.
This was Dan’s first day on the trip. He flew into Nashville that morning and we had planned on checking out a few more sites, including the Country Music Hall of Fame and an open-bar Thrillist party (that Dan’s friend would be attending). After a day walking through scorching heat, we were pretty worn, and decided it was time for the air-condition Hall of Fame. We paid the parking fee and climbed the steps to a stadium sized cultural staple. It may have been the southern food coma that’d set in not 20 minutes before, but the $25 entry fee felt like a good ol’ fashioned middle finger in our sweaty faces. After a simultaneous “fuck that,” we vamped in the gift shop, ironically trying on cowboy hats while we decided our game plan. “D’you wanna just drive to Savannah tonight?” Dan proposed. “Let’s do it,” I agreed. We might’ve just needed better tour guides, but after a day and change we were seeking a deeper South. At about 5pm we hit the road, excited with our decision to change it up.
Our navigation put us about 8 hours from Savannah, but we had camping gear and a long drive so we didn’t overthink it. It was on the late side, so we just missed Ruby Falls (the largest underground waterfall) and Rock City Gardens (supreme cliff vista that vaguely sounds like a KISS song). Atlanta was never part of the itinerary, but it made perfect sense as a pit-stop for dinner. Since we were going to do ATL for dinner, I texted my friend Sara back in New York. She’s from Atlanta and has multiple family members in the restaurant industry, so asking her recommendation was a no-brainer. She gave us the name of her family’s place – Oak Street Cafe in Roswell, GA (15 mi north of Atlanta). Her cousins run the place and apparently her grandma makes the meatballs! I immediately plotted the journey with my phone, but realized we’d be an hour too late. We thanked her for the suggestion and reverted back to scouring Yelp for a meal worthy of our hunger. We both craved seafood and set our sights on a spot called The Optimist. With seating ending at 10pm, and our ETA being 9:55, we knew there was no room for error. One wrong turn could be the difference between a great meal and an okay one. We reached the block, but drove passed the restaurant by a few hundred feet. Dan, having driven the last four hours, was a bit braindead at this point. After what seemed like an eight-point-turn, I hopped out of the car and ran into what I thought was the front door. It was actually a backdoor by a more private dining area, but I made it to the bar with haste to find someone who’d seat us before the clock ran out. The first server I found led me to the maître d’. She was super friendly and was happy to hear that we drove straight from Nashville to their restaurant. We valet parked and were seated within a few minutes.
It was the eve of my birthday and we ordered like kings. Green curry mussels to start, followed by swordfish and Alaskan halibut for Dan and I respectively. Everything was amazing. The mussels were probably the best thing we ate all trip. We couldn’t let the curry go to waste, and asked our waiter Paolo to hook it up with more garlic bread. When the dessert menu came, I don’t think we were actually hungry, but our curiosity led to two more plates; I opted for the fried peach pie with white pepper ice cream and Dan went with the classic key lime pie with whipped cream. It was around 11:30 by now, and we knew Savannah was a bit out of our reach with an impending food coma and a lack of sleeping arrangements. I sipped an espresso and used some camping apps to find a local campsite that didn’t require prior reservations. After an unsuccessful search, we asked Paolo if he knew any spots that didn’t require reservations. We’d already filled him in on our epic checklist and the overall improvisational nature of the trip, so he first suggested a city park to camp in, admitting that he didn’t know the legality of doing so. We shrugged off the situation, as an encounter with the police was probably the best-case scenario of that plan. New to the area, he went off to ask the manager if he knew of any places to camp.
Paolo came back a few minutes later, “the manager has an empty lot you can camp on if you’re up for it.” We both exclaimed “that would be awesome,” with a tone of incredulity. We laughed at the oddity and serendipity intertwined in the moment. With the proposal accepted, Darren came up to the table and introduced himself. We explained the original plan to make it to Savannah and he agreed that we bit off a little too much road this late in the day. He gave us the low-down on his newly purchased property; a partly finished recording studio, situated next to a tattoo shop and across from a dive bar on Ponce de Leon, had an overgrown lot behind it that we could camp in. “It’s got a fence all the way around, so no one will fuck with you,” he assured us. He added that he was booked for a recording session in the morning, so we’d have to be out first thing (which I assured him was already our game plan).
Darren at The Optimist
Darren drew a diagram of the lot was location on a napkin and gave us the address. We thanked him profusely and snapped a quick photo. After leaving Paolo with a fat tip, we fetched the car and headed toward our new destination. “What the fuck is happening right now?” we laughed on the drive over. A new Black Keys single kicked off on the radio, as it really felt like the stars aligned for us just minutes ago. His first night on the road, Dan needed some contact solution. We pulled off to a Wallgreens for some supplies. While I waited for Dan, I drank a mango Gatorade and watched the parking lot come alive its nocturnal inhabitants. I could tell then and there this was about to get interesting.
Entry to the lot
We drove a mile or so down the road to find our side street and turned left. We crept down the block, eyes peeled for the vacant space we’d call home for a night. A long wooden fence hid its contents before the one-story commercial spaces sprouted up at the end of the block. “That’s got to be it,” I pulled a U-turn at the first storefront and threw it in park. I walked to the far left end of the fence where there was trashcan storage and generous hole in the wooden fence. I stepped through to find a steep drop into a valley covered in ivy and overgrown weeds. I turned to the right to see a staircase dimly lit by a nearby streetlamp. “Hopefully it’s flatter over there because this is way to steep to camp on,” I thought to myself.
Apt building overlooking the lot
I returned to the car to update Dan that we’d found the place and to come check it out. Dan was verbally not a fan of the whole idea anymore. The lot was certainly not the tranquil prairie we imagined; it was closer to the vacant lot you’d come across in Lower East Side in the Guliani era. That being said, the apartment building overlooking the lot was a blessing and a curse. It challenged the privacy of the yard to the fact that vagrants couldn’t post up for too long. At the same time, with half of its windows lit, we kept our headlamps on low as we questioned the legality of our situation.
Dan offered to pay for a motel, pointing out that the risks far out-weighed the benefits. I argued that we’re doing it for the story, that we were on this path for a reason. I reasoned with him by suggesting we setup the tent, lock our valuables in the trunk, and if it came down to it, sleep with our knives. We setup the tent in record time, cleared some broken glass from the vicinity, and tossed our sleeping bags into the tent before heading back to the car. As we repacked the trunk with everything tempting enough to break a window, Darren rolled up to check in on us.
“Ah, you guys found it” he said from his window. With the car half-packed, I walked across the street, headlamp still on.
“Yeah, we just setup the tent and are getting our last few things… thanks again for letting us crash,” I replied.
“No problem. Just make sure you’re out first thing tomorrow,” he muttered just louder than a whisper.
I assured him that we were still planning on departing at 7am. He offered us his hand to shake at a 45 degree angle as he whispered his salutations. In retrospect, it must’ve been a cool-guy handshake, but in the moment it definitely tainted the entire scenario. As he drove off, Dan turned to me “What the fuck was that? This is not right. Some shit is about to go down.”
I confirmed the weird vibe, “You know I was cool with all of this and then that just happened.” I convinced him that the prudent thing to do was to finish locking our things up in the car and walking to the bar on the corner. It was a win-win since we could hangout on the porch and watch the block for unexpected guests as well as get a couple rounds of liquid courage before our brazen attempt at urban camping. We made our way into a sweet dive called The Local. I knew I was home hearing the Ty Segall and then Harlem blaring from the speakers upon entry. Mindy, the punk-rawk bartender, poured me a birthday whiskey while we drank a top-shelf selection of Dan’s over rocks.
We met some friendly people at the bar who seemed to also have Nashville and Savannah in common. Dan took a liking to one of them, and as her friends left for the next bar on their journey, I felt my sleep deprivation kicking in. I said my goodbyes and headed back to the tent. It was still hot and humid, so I unzipped my sleeping bag and slid my sheathed knife under the airplane pillow. Dan soon joined me and kicked off his lemon-print Adidas. The pungent odor of his sockless foot-sweat seared the tent. “You are getting your own tent for the rest of the trip,” I coughed. He apologized and quickly fell into a whiskey-catalyzed slumber.
As I layed en-guarde in the doorway of the tent, I notice a blue flashing light illuminating the apartment building. Were the cops here? Did someone see our tent from the window? Should we just stay in silence and hope it’s unrelated? The knot in my stomach grew until I decided to do some recon. Slipping my shoes on, I dashed up the stairs in my best ninja. I peered through a hole in the fence toward the origin of the blue light. It was just neon advertisement. Wow, time to relax dude.
With a full exhale, I returned to the tent in a casual gate to find Dan had slid down the incline in to the middle of the tent. I zipped myself back into the tent, hoping to disturb him enough that he’d return to his area. No dice. I kicked my Bucketfeet off and cuddled up to pillow+knife combo to catch a few winks. That’s when the snoring started. This was full-drunk snoring. I don’t know how he’d got so drunk, but I think all the travel had something to do with it. I lay there pondering how the women in his life could deal with this. I told him to “shut up” in a stern tone, which would only interrupt the noise for a minute or so. Let me clarify – he’d slid half the tent down, so he’s a foot from my head, facing my ear, snoring at full volume. That’s when I chose feet over snore. Yes, the feet that smell like sockless shoe-wearing after a day of walking in Nashville in 98 degree weather. Yep, that’s how much I needed to get some rest.
After about ten minutes, with my face pressed into my t-shirt, my mind drifted into the subconscious, images of how I imagined Savannah to be animated before, Whack!, kicked in the back by good ol’ Drunkin Danuts behind me. “Are you serious right now?” I bitched. As if perfectly timed, the second kick came as fell asleep for the second time. “Dude you gotta stop kicking me” I said loud enough to jar him to a half-awake daze. The whole point of urban camping was to come out with some sleep. I fall asleep. Deep sleep. At least an hour or two has passed. Dan wakes me up. It’s twilight. “I’ve gotta shit, what do I do?” Equally enraged and in disbelief that he’d bother me for such a thing, I mumbled an unintelligible “wet wipes in the car.” I fall back asleep.
A fuller morning light wakes me up and my alarm soon follow. We breakdown and pack up the tent like the Gestapo is on their way. We laugh again, looking over the lot in daylight. “Let’s get the fuck outta here,” we agree and head to a spot called Thumbs Up, a greasy spoon diner on the way to the highway. I wish I could remember the exact words Dan used, but he confessed that he’d been quick to judge the situation; something like this: “Here I am thinkin this dude it gonna mug us, when he’s obviously a really cool guy that just let to strangers crash on his property. I gotta stop doing that.” Whatever he took away from it, I’m glad it was positive. We’re all fed fear and distrust by the media. It’s good to stand your ground and rely on the good nature of strangers once in a while.
Before we hit the road, we take turns brushing our teeth in the bathroom and order from a build-your-own-breakfast menu. The waitresses broke the mold in terms of being attentive and hospitable and we were on our way with coffee-to-go cups. Definitely a good note to leave Atlanta on. Savannah here we come!
Thumbs Up Diner
While the majority of the road trip was unplanned, Third Man Records is probably the only sight-seeing I had to do while in Nashville. I’d heard about the fully restored Record Booth when it was first publicized on the website and now I’d have my chance to experience it in all of its glory.
Arriving at Third Man Records
Dan & I made our way over to the record shop shortly after abandoning our attempt to ride bikes around East Nashville (it was ghastly hot and we were clearly riding in the wrong places in an up-and-coming neighborhood). We parked in an adjacent lot, greeted by the radio tower sign of Third Man. As we approached, a drifter offered us a ‘steal’ at three golds for a one-y (3 Marlboros for a buck). We politely declined, already armed with $4.50 packs and a greater mission.
Legos from Gondry’s ‘Fell in Love With a Girl’ video.
As we entered the shop, we were greated by Katty, the bubbly manager. While we waited for our turn with the Record Booth she filled us in on the process – put in the tokens and when the red light flicks on, that’s your 10 second warning to record. We explored the store’s rock nostalgia and vintage accoutrements.
Dan after his spoken word sesh
I practiced a half-written song, trying to decide how to fill the 150 seconds I’d have. Dan went first. He read a poem, had some extra time, and tried for two but was cut-off mid-verse. When it was my turn, I put the tokens in and waited while practicing the intro lick. After a couple minutes of waiting, Katty came over to restart the machine.
My turn with the Record Booth
Poised for my two minutes of history, I noticed the microphone in the booth is rather high. In hindsight, having a guitar strap would have solved the problem, but luckily the store’s junior sized acoustic was light enough to wedge under my strumming elbow. Once the recording finished, the 45 plays back in the booth before it is picked from the platter by vacuum and dropped down the chute.
Katty presenting my first 45
We took our freshly cut 45s to Katty at the front counter. She slipped Third Man dust jackets over the vinyl while we settled up. While we talked about the sweet digs in the shop, I couldn’t help but tell Katty about Rotobooth. If there were a perfect setting for my rotary-dial photobooth, Third Man (with a record booth, rotary telephone booth, and Mold-o-Rama) is that place. She loved the photo I showed her and insisted I send her an email that she could share with the rest of management. If you’re reading this, I’ll send that over shortly!
If you’re in Nashville any time soon, be sure to make it to Third Man Records.
Kelbertrack on Third Man Records
Reid and his handmade SG pickups
While visiting Nashville, I stayed with my friends Reid and Jocelyn. Reid has always been a big inspiration to me; his self-taught projects run the gamut of guitar building, tube amp construction and car restoration. Lately he’s been winding custom pickups for Fender Strats and Gibson SGs. This is especially exciting for me, since those happen to be my two electric guitars. The problem with the SG’s humbucker pickups is that the high-mids get lost on the bridge pickup. That means the sound gets rather muddy when you add effect pedals in line. Reid explained to me that the coils are wired out of phase, to reduce noise and give it that rich, trademark sound. He’s been experimenting with changing the ratios of the coils (number of windings), to affect how the two coils pickup sound, and therefor change the resulting tone.
Pickups are largely accountable for what an electric guitar sounds like while amplified, so changing the pickups is like changing guitars.
Reid has a number of pickup projects but the tricky part is sourcing the bobbin, the plastic housing that varies guitar to guitar. Custom bobbins is something I can design & print on my 3D printer. Perfect opportunity for a trade! Reid gave me a set of his custom pickups in return for 3D printing him special bobbins for his project. Stay tuned for some comparison videos of my two sets of pickups.
Erin and her gift
When I first drove in to Nashville, my navigation brought me to the main drag on Broadway. It’s similar to Times Square, in the sense that locals don’t really go there. Despite the drive I just made, I had to get back in my car, it wasn’t where I wanted to be. I asked some over-make-up’d women where I could find a ‘non-chain’ cafe for some java and grub. The younger of the two recommended a spot called Fido on the west side of town.
Fido is a large cafe with a lot of turnover, so you order at the counter and they bring the food to your table. While waiting in line, Erin and I began chatting. Feeling the pressure to make every meal in the South my new favorite, I checked with her if I was ordering the right thing. After we placed our orders, I asked if she’d like eat together. After we picked a table, I realized she’d only ordered coffee and she’d be watching me shovel down my first meal of the day (at 2:30 pm).
Salmon with cheddar grits, spicy kale, and fried onions.
Erin was from Nashville, but was attending school in Ohio. She was at the cafe to work on her research paper examining the money spent on incarceration and policy that encourages that rather than rehabilitation.
While explaining some of the projects I’ve worked on, 3D printing came up. She’d never heard of 3D printing before, so I explained the process to her – equating it to a moving hot glue gun. Luckily, I’d brought a white low polygonal tiger that I’d printed on New School’s Makerbot Rep2. The plan was to shoot the tiger in the timelapse videos, but I’d never gotten around to it. Seeing as she didn’t order food, I’m wasn’t sure I could count this as ‘dinner with strangers'; then I remembered about ‘give something away’. A 3D print is a pretty amazing gift for someone that hadn’t know about 3D printing ten minutes before. Nailed it.
Morning fog outside of Asheville
The leftover turnip-potato-bacon mash made an incredible breakfast. The drive to Nashville runs through some of the Smoky Mountains. I picked a picturesque time to make the drive.
IMG 5646 from mike k on Vimeo.
Since I decided to take a road trip to Nashville, I’ve been hearing about Asheville. When I realized it was also the home of the Moog headquarters, it became a new highlight on my itinerary. My five hour drive stretched closer to seven, after taking the time to blog about all of the hiking at a Starbucks.
I pulled into town at 5:15pm, headed directly to the Moog shop that’d only be open for the rest of the hour. I’ll admit that I went straight for the guitar pedal demo area, even though it’s Moog’s modular synths that put him on the map for most. I played a red tele’ through a chain of Moog pedals, into an Orange amp. The second pedal from the left was a really unique distortion pedal. All of their pedals have control voltage inputs, meaning that you can plug-in an expression pedal to control one of the effect’s settings with your foot (think wahwah pedal). On the distortion pedal, you can control the filter frequency, making sounds somewhere between a wah and a fuzz box. And no, it sounds nothing like a distortion pedal through a wah.
Moog guitar pedal setup
Not before long, I was geeking out with the manager Rob on all the great toys in the shop. I mentioned the Littlebits Synth Kit that I worked on last year. He said the he and especially the engineers at the shop were huge fans. I asked Ron to stand by his favorite instrument in the shop. He chose the limited edition Voyager (only 100 made).
Rob from the Moog shop with Voyager
I opted to pose with the theremin (think of that sound in the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations). When Robert Moog was a student, he sold theremins in kit form. I guess I was acknowledging his origins (and taking the opportunity to throw a raised eyebrow). I bought myself some geeky souvenirs including a travel mug and a series of ADSR coasters (sorry no money for a synth). Rob also hooked me up with a sweet hexagonal moog calendar when I asked him the price. Thanks dude!
Posing with a Moog theremin
Still sore from the 10 hour hike the day before, I asked Rob for a suggestion on yoga spot in the area. He mentioned the Asheville Community Yoga Center. I wish every long drive on this trip ended with a yoga session.
Asheville Community Yoga
Once class was over I had to decide which of all the great dinner recommendations I would seek out. I was originally planning on going to Rosetta’s, the cornerstone of vegetarian in the town. I heard they had a homemade-kombucha bar, which sounded pretty fantastic. It was already after 8pm, so I decided to consolidate my trip by going to the Brewery that the park ranger had recommended (he knew one of the brewmasters).
I snagged a seat at the bar, and after a glance of the menus, knew I’d made the right decision. With some guidance from Sam the bartender, I ordered the double IPA and a fried-chicken with kimchi sando. Sam went by ‘Slam’ at the bar. There was a Sam Dunkin hired at the same time, so naturally they make the two parts of ‘Slam Dunkin’.
Sam at Wicked Weed
The second Ron I met in Asheville was a fellow solo roadtripper. He had just come from Rosetta’s and was on the IPA wagon with me. Between Slam and Ron, I felt like I was at dinner with friends. Sam gave us tastings of her favorite beers, including their sours. Sour beer is an odd thing to me, but it’s hard to turn down free beer. Thanks again for the free round!
After dinner, I still had to find a place to sleep. The plan was to camp and couch surf, so I couldn’t chicken out and get a hotel room just because it’d been raining and it was close to midnight. The guys at the Moog shop insisted I could camp off any trail on the Blue Ridge Parkway, so I headed in that direction. It was a curvy, 40 mph local highway, much like Skyline. I noticed cars parked on big grassy shoulders, presumably campers in the woods behind.
I pulled onto the first large shoulder I could find, my small coupe awkwardly bobbling over the uneven ground. I slung on my headlamp and entered the forest looking for a suitable campsite and to check for bear. I big ol’ possum clunked around, totally un-phased by my bright headlamp. The slope of the forest, way too sleep for tent camping meant I’d either sling up the hammock in the rain or camp on the actual shoulder. I was headed for Nashville at dawn, so I didn’t have time to be picky about matters, so I popped a tent on the forest-side of my car and napped for about four hours. Two to three cars and hour would drive by and I would laugh to myself as I imagined what their reaction would be to such a site.
Just to be clear, I came prepared with iodine capsules for treating freshwater. It takes half an hour to purify, but well worth the wait.
IMG 5598 from mike k on Vimeo.
IMG 5599 from mike k on Vimeo.
bearmorning from mike k on Vimeo.
Sunday morning I awoke to loud rustling around 7am. It had the familiar pace of an animal negotiating obstacles. Luckily, I slept with the rain fly off my tent, so I could watch the shooting stars after my hike. My eyes still at a soft focus, I searched the brush for where the sounds were originating.
I hear the crunch and chew of an animal eating. But where is it?
Then came the thud of an apple striking the ground. I looked up to see the black bear up near the top of the tree, running a train on the apples.
My neighbors left their beer-can trash out the previous night. There’s a strict no trash policy to avoid bear encounters. Hitting the road for Asheville, I didn’t have time to see how the scenario panned out, but he was eating apples by the dozen, so I figured the sleeping campers were better left alone.
On the Skyline Drive the previous day, I did get to catch a rather cute bear-crossing. A mama bear + four cubs. If you watch the Skyline timelapse, you can catch them for a moment when I’m stopped behind an SUV. I did catch the last bear on my DSLR, but I didn’t have time to touch the settings (left on manual), so it is what it is.
Skyline720 from mike k on Vimeo.
I’ve been using two action cameras during my trip. A GoPro Hero 3, lent to me by my buddy Carlos, and a knock-off GoPro simply called the SJ4000. Since the SJ has an lcd on the back, it’s nice for handheld use. I recorded the cliff jumping video with the SJ, but realized after recording that it left the dumb time stamp on the video! Bad default settings (which always seem to go back to default).
The SJ doesn’t offer as many timelapse settings, so I have been dashboard mounting the GoPro for my drives. Long drives I’ve been shooting on 5sec timer to ration card memory. Shorter drives (under 3 hours), I’ve been shooting at 1/2 second intervals, which make for smoother results. This Skyline Parkway drive, was about 2 hours total (with pit stops) and I just love it (because it was such a great drive).
See if you can find the bear crossing momement!
Since the Skyline Parkway runs along the top of the mountain, it makes for reverse hiking, meaning climb down the mountain and back up. My trail was no different, and I began my descent on Cedar Run, a 3 mile trail that follows a creek. The White Oak Canyon trail has its own shorter trail, which seemed to be the popular choice (and 2-3 miles shorter). I would’ve ordinarily done that hike, but the rangers insisted that this loop was the proper way to see the trail.
Cedar Falls (the first of the two)
The first waterfall I came across in Cedar Falls had a nice slope that people could slide down into its pool. I knew I only had time to enjoy one swim, and I was set on finding a cliff jumping area that some passing hikers gave me the scoop on. The first waterfall is where I spoke with Howard.
Howard, a local hiker, who I met at the first falls
Howard, a local hiker, had just finished his waterfall session and spoke of his friends’ success; one a producer for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, one an art collector with a museum in Potomac, MD. Unfamiliar with the sculptor, he described the experience of walking into the walls of what sound like a Richard Serra piece – high steel curves that lead you into his intended space (which he described as awkward).
Area above the cliff jumping ledge (lower on Cedar Falls)
Not much further down the trail, my ears were tickled by the sounds of deep splashes – the sound after jumping from a high spot. Once I made it to the clearing, I found two groups of teenagers diving and flipping from the fifteen foot rock edge into the deep, freshwater pool below.
Whit and Kaylyn on Cedar Run trail, Shenandoah.
After all the fun of cliff jumping, I had to get back on the trail if I was going to make it most of the way before dark. Shortly after, I met Whit and his granddaughter, Kaylyn, leaving the swimming hole in the same direction.
I needed to get my bearings on my location, so I asked Whit if he knew how far ahead the connecting path would be. I had assumed I was much further on my hike than I had been! His first reaction was to tell me to turn around and go back the way I came (I think it was 5:30pm at this point), since there was no way I’d make it out the other side before dark.
I mentioned that I packed my headlamp, and he politely modified his advice in case I had taken offense. “You look pretty gamey. If you packed your headlamp you should go for it.”
I’ve never heard someone use “gamey” to describe a person, but in bear country, it’s a compliment. Whit mentioned the notoriety of hike up the falls “breaking backpackers,” so I was mentally preparing for the hardship to come.
Photos and details of the rest of the experience to come.
I’m happy to say I did both! Even though I made this epic list of 21 goals, I never divulged them to Matt, my buddy who recommended the trail. I guess waterfall hikes are really what everyone wants to do when it comes down to it.
I recorded a few jumps; two of my own jumps and one of Dan “Real Deal” McGrill doing a backflip (two cams for this!).
As far as footage is concerned, my second jump gives the best visual experience so I’ll post that first. Enjoy!
My2ndcliffjump720 from mike k on Vimeo.
If the rest of my trip is any bit as satisfying as Shenandoah I couldn’t ask any more.
After my first night of backwoods camping, I decided I needed to find a proper campsite so I could make a fire. After speaking with a friendly park ranger at Skyland, the highest summit of the Skyline Parkway, I called ahead and found plenty of vacancies at Big Meadow. I quickly setup my tent on site A23, a tent-only area, to avoid the hustle & bust of the RV families that populate much of these campsites. Figuring that my hike would place me back at camp after all the shops would be closed, I walked down to the shower/supply area to buy some firewood (it had been raining and the maps state ‘no wood gathering’ at Big Meadow). A pleasant lady, Donna, greated me with a grin and walked me to the area to pick out a cord of wood. Her arthritic hands fumbled with the split wood, but I happily stepped in and gripped one of the bigger bundles she was eager to dig out for me. As we walked back to her office, I crossed behind her, changing sides to walk with my wood carrying shoulder away from her. “Where’d you go?” she chuckled. “I’m blind in one eye, so I lose people.” Her blind eye was a lighter grey-blue than her strong eye. It was charming in a Bowie way. I bought some quarters for the coin-operated showers – a prize I’d save for after a strenuous hike.
Matt, one of the rangers at Shenandoah
Before driving to the Hawksbill trail head, I ran into Matt Gordon, the ranger I’d met while checking into the site. After a a minute or two, it came up that I was headed to Asheville, NC. Matt lived in Asheville for two years, and he generously listed a few must-see places to see live bands, eat tacos and healthy noms, as well as recommendations for two breweries (more about that when I get there!). I showed him the loop I planned to walk; an 8.2 mile loop in White Oak Canyon peppered with waterfalls. It was already getting late, but he assured me I’d have time to do it. Enough talking, start walkin.
#1 Hike a Mountain
Lower Whiteoak Falls
My hike kicked off at 2:30pm from Hawkbill parking area. I packed my headlamp, since I knew starting so late would mean I’d do the last leg of the hike in the dark. I met a few friendly hikers, mostly locals who had hiked the trail many times before. [note: I have to get back on the road since I'm at a Starbucks half way to Asheville.] I’ll mention Whit’s friendly advice shortly.
Made it to Shenandoah National Park around 4:15. The nice older woman at the gate broke the news that the campsites are full, but if I am equipped for backwoods camping, that is an option I have besides camping outside of the park.
You need to fill out a permit to backwoods camp, so getting to the visitor’s office by 5pm is crucial. The caveat of backwoods camping is that fires aren’t allowed. What’s camping without nature’s TV (as my friend Ben calls it)? The other condition is that you need a bear-proof solution for food; they make special bear-proof containers or you can hoist food between two trees (something like 10 feet in the air and 8 feet from the tree).
I did not expect the park to be this big! I knew Skyline Drive was 105 miles, but didn’t realize it’s all destination as well. On Matt Richard’s recommendation, my aim is White Oak Canyon trail. It’s about 8 miles if you do the loop. That’s mile 45 on the Skyline. A highway of hikes; amazing.
On the drive, I find another car stopped. A mama black bear and her four cubs are crossing the street. Snapped a quick photo of the last cub with my 7D, which I’ll upload when I get to civilization. This definitely supports the ‘bears every two miles’ statistics I read earlier. Note to self: whittle spear first!
I reached the trailhead at 7pm, an hour before sunset. Took 20 minutes to pack my essentials: hoodie, sleeping bag, tent, hammock, lantern, knife, Camelbak, hatchet, dry-bag with map, paracord, DSLR. I headed down a horse trail by the Hawksbill parking area (mile 45), where I was told it was okay to camp. It’s a very steep and rocky area, not the type of place I would have chosen for myself. But the night was quickly approaching and I had to choose my campsite while it was still light enough to see most of the possible hazards.
About 10-15 minutes of walking and 1/2 mile from the road, I found a relatively flat clearing situated before a 20′ rock face. In retrospect, it’s nice to be by a cliff. Limiting the possible directions of attack serves as nice illusion of safety. The ground way too rocky, I hung the camping hammock (thanks Mick) between two trees – one of which was dead and festering with centipedes. Luckily the dead tree could support my weight, as it was dark by the time I finished tying it off. In the hammock I could perfectly see the valley below and yet remained hidden from the higher area above.
Between the centipedes and variety of insects that greeted me in my first ten minutes, I was happy to not be sleeping on the ground. I made a nearby sapling my night stand, hanging my lantern and sunglasses. I hadn’t realized how important it is to have a lantern that will last through the night until the moment I was camping without a fire in unknown woods. My Black Diamond Apollo lantern claims a 96-hour runtime on low led setting, which was the perfect level for working on a task or falling asleep.
I ate dinner by headlamp, but I shoveled it down. Part hunger, part bear anxiety, I had no idea what the forest looked like as I only spent about 20 minutes in it before dark. I put the remnants of my kale salad, quinoa side & hazelnut Ritter chocolate bar back in a sack and made my way through the dark forest to find a tree to keep it from bear mouths.
Following my knot app, I made a lazy variation of a noose, which I tightened to a rock and threw over a thick horizontal tree branch. Once I retrieved the swinging rock-end of the rope, I hoisted the bag up to the tree and tied off to a sapling. Viola! The pics below were from the morning (it was a little trickier in the dark).
Bear-proof food storage solution
Tying off the food bag
I was somewhat relieved once the food was removed from my campsite. I say ‘somewhat’ because the next thing I did was sharpen my grandpa’s bowie knife. This type of knife looks like the one Rambo carried, but with a compass on the tip of the handle. Inside the handle there are water-proof matches and a tiny fishing lure & monofilament. I’ve had this knife tucked in a drawer for most of the time it’s been in my possession. I’ve only recently started carrying it, as my hikes have gotten longer and riskier.
Side note: I’ve become more serious about being prepared for the outdoors. The last hike I’d gone on ended abruptly with a bad MCL sprain. My friend Margueritte and I had journeyed off-trail on Devil’s Path in the Catskills. We unknowingly walked through a field of stinging nettles, which set our skin on fire, and were desperately trying to make our way back to the trail as fast as possible. Climbing over fallen trees and large boulders at a frenzied pace, I took a shoulder-height step up and popped my knee out of place, falling backward off of the rock. I was soon back on my feet but limped the 45 minutes on a steep mountainside to the trailhead. The entire return trip I wondered the outcome of a more severe injury so deep off trail.
Back to the knife sharpening. Here I have this dull-ass 6″ blade and a 1/2″ x 3″ sharpening stone. I spent a good fifteen minutes trying to put an edge on it. It was crude, but I could stab it into a tree trunk with far less effort than before. The long day of driving was finally taking its toll, so I ditched my idea to whittle a spear (or even fasten the knife to the end of a branch). The camping hammock had a large enough to store the hatchet so I was set for sleep-defense.
Literally anything I put down on the neighboring rock ledge would have a centipede or giant spider on it upon retrieval. After flicking off the critters, I carabinered my things to the hammock straps. The temperature was noticeably dropping from the day. I threw on my faux-fur-lined hoodie and unfolded my sleeping bag into the hammock. I was still wearing shorts, so I zipped my legs into my sleeping bag before passing out. I woke up to what felt like low 50 degrees and huge gusts of wind swaying the trees in a swirling motion above. It was in the eighties during the day; I’d almost left the sleeping bag behind! I giddily zipped myself fully into the bag. Suddenly I felt the sensation of a hundred tiny legs on my side. I grab – pinch – threw that sucker off me so quick, you’d think it was a rehearsed movement. At the time, I wasn’t sure if they were poisonous, so definitely added a little drama to the occasion. Crisis averted. Back in the sleeping bag. So glad I brought that thing. Thinking about it, exposure to the elements is the primary cause of death in the outdoors. Always overpack people!
After a full day of packing and preparation, it’s finally time to roll. I found it hard to sleep, giddy with anticipation. I spent the last hour or so mounting a bike rack (thanks Mick!) and a GoPro on the dash (thanks Los!). I’m trying a 5sec timelapse for the ride down (doing the math to stretch 8 hrs out of 64gb @ hi-res).
I went over-board on the Trader Joes, but from what I hear about the lack of veggies in the South, I’ll err on the side of healthy to account for all the bbq and pie ahead of me!
As a kid, my father would devise treasure hunts as a way of giving me a gift. They would result in a toy of some sort (like a He-Man figure), but the true gift was the treasure hunt; a series of hand-drawn pictorial clues on a Post-It note. He is an amazing illustrator, so these clues were as good as photographs made of a few eloquent lines. I still remember one of the treasure sites being buried under a large rock in a lot across the street.
Adventure is still as enticing as in my childhood, so I devised a similar way to enjoy my first roadtrip to the South. It began as a simple To-Do list; ‘hike a mountain,’ ‘buy a used instrument.’ It quickly became open-ended constraints; ‘eat a new food,’ ‘give something away.’
1. Climb a mountain
2. Find a waterfall or cliff jump
3. Seek out a local legend
4. Record a song
5. Build a fire without lighter fluid
6. Walk along train tracks
7. Skinny dip
8. See a band (bonus: perform a song with em)
9. Eat a new food
10. See some wildlife
11. Visit a brewery / still
12. Make some street art
13. Spend time on a raft/boat-like object
14. Get to an uninhabited island (bonus: stay overnight)
15. Have a stranger sing me Happy Bday
16. Give something away
17. Buy a used instrument (bonus: barter for it)
18. Trust a stranger
19. Catch a wave
20. Catch a fish
21. Set off fireworks
22. Dinner with a stranger
Getting ready to kick off my 10-day trip to the South. Haven’t blogged consistently for a few years now, so I’m taking my first trip to the South (NC, SC, TN, GA) as an opportunity to start publishing again.
Instead of planning the trip around attractions, I’ve made an adventure list, made of 21 goals, which I’ll be documenting along the way.
Some of the goals are social by nature, such as “dinner with strangers,” which should mix things up a bit.
My roommate, Dan, will be joining me in Nashville and we’ll drive to Savannah together. He’s a great writer, so I have a good feeling that he’ll be contributing to this blog as well.
In the meantime, here’s a photo of some of the goodies I’m packing.
If i typed some text, would I see it an excerpt blurb on fb?
If I update does it repost?
New York, I think we need some time apart. I’m driving down to see Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia for 10 days.
I think it’s for the best.
So how about that