Midnight On The Mountain

I knew we were in trouble when they turned on the light bar. The pickup sat there across the small gravel parking lot from our campsite – it’s headlamps ominously aimed at our tents. And now the million-lumen light bar, which lit us up like stadium lights. It was a horrible thing, the truck. Idling like a ravenous and angry beast. A full size American-made truck of an indeterminate make in the post mid-night darkness. If Stephen King were Southern, this truck would have been his Christine. Massive, knobby tires and one of those after-market muffler set-ups that made the engine roar at an ear-piercing decibel. A tattered Confederate battle flag hung defiantly from an antenna on the right fender. It was a nightmare. A redneck’s wet dream.

We sat in our tents paralyzed. What the fuck were these guys up to? Melissa tried in vain to get a signal on her cell. Chase, our 13-year old nephew was in his own tent a dozen feet away. Ours were the only two tents around.

The truck had come down the mountain on a jeep road just a few minutes earlier and, seeing our tents, the douchebags decided to have a little fun at our expense. They spun out, doing figure eights and slinging gravel, the howling engine at full octave. It was obnoxious and we were initially annoyed. But then they backed into the corner of the lot and stopped, lights in our direction. When the light bar came on, annoyance evaporated into fear. I was on this mountain with my wife and my nephew. I was responsible for their safety. My mind raced with a hundred different scenarios, none of which were good. I didn’t have a gun. We didn’t have a signal. It was 1am. We were completely vulnerable.

The truck idled in a low growl – menacing, aggrieved. It occurred to me that it was a Friday night (now Saturday morning), and these idiots had been out partying. They were drunk at a minimum, but who knows what else they’d been up to. Meth is rampant in these Appalachian backwaters. They had guns, no doubt. No way they didn’t have guns. What were they doing? Planning? Were they still just fucking with us or had their whiskey-addled brains gone to a darker place? It seemed entirely possible that they could walk down into the campsite and… God knows what.

After a few minutes the truck pulled forward and stopped adjacent to us at the edge of the campsite, only 20 feet away now. One of the two rednecks got out of the passenger side and walked around the truck. He seemed agitated. I could make out enough of him in the waxing moonlight to determine that he looked exactly as I’d expected. Long, stringy hair, cutoff t-shirt – straight out of central casting. There were faint aromas of pine and burnt motor oil and cheep beer.

He reached for something in the bed of the truck and my heart pounded so hard I was afraid they’d hear it. I could hear muffled conversation but couldn’t make anything out. If they walked down into the campsite, I would have to get out of the tent – I would need to address them – try my diplomatic skills – try to diffuse the situation. But I knew that if they walked down there, things would get very ugly very quickly.

I prayed they wouldn’t, and I cursed myself for choosing this campsite, only a few tenths of a mile from the highway and easily accessible. What had begun as such a good day – an excellent day on the trail and at camp had turned into a nightmare. I felt at that moment like we were on the verge of something violent and terrible. Perhaps death. Or worse. It didn’t seem beyond the realm of possibility. It felt real and close and almost scripted – as if there were no other way for it to end.

To my immense relief, the redneck got back in the truck after what seemed an eternity. They spun more donuts, the monstrous engine roaring, enraged. And then, just as quickly as they’d arrived they were gone. We heard them tear down the gravel access road and then turn onto the highway, the roar of the engine growing more distant as they lumbered into the dark night.

We’d been given a reprieve, but we knew there would be no return to sleep. What if they came back? What if they were going to get more buddies? We were completely vulnerable at our camp. There was only one thing to do. I called out to Chase to grab his shoes and headlamp. We were going back to the trail. We wouldn’t bother with packing – it was more urgent than that. We needed to find a safe place now.

We accessed the trail at the northwest corner of the Laurel Valley parking lot, climbing the 20 or 30 steps away from the lot and onto the trail proper. We sat there at the top of the steps for a few minutes, listening and trying to comprehend what had just happened. The surge in adrenaline left my legs rubbery. My lungs burned. I had to make a concerted effort to control my breathing.

We whispered to each other and this was reassuring. Just being back among the trees and away from view made us feel safe. After a few minutes it occurred to me that the trail paralleled the jeep road for quite a way – perhaps a mile back west, and if they did come back we would be vulnerable in our current position. Having accepted the reality that there would be no return to camp until daylight, we began walking back in the direction we had come that day – westward through the inky black of deep night.

The trail looked and felt different in the dark. Our headlamps, set to tactical red, cast shaky and faint beams of light, illuminating our next few steps but not much beyond. There was an electric sense of urgency and as we walked through the corridor of hemlocks and pines, we listened in nervous anticipation of the truck’s return. Somehow we sensed that they were not quite done with us.

After about a mile, we came to a spot where the trail intersected with the jeep road again at a sharp curve. We descended steps down to the crossing, cautious, slow, headlamps off – listening for any movement. We quickly climbed back onto the trail on the opposite side of the intersection and walked another hundred feet or so westward until we felt sufficiently safe.

We sat one in front of the other on some steps along the trail. Chase in front and below, Melissa in the middle, then me. We could make out the jeep road below us, faint moonlight reflecting off the sandy surface through a thin veil of pine branches. We continued to try 911 intermittently with no success. We were stuck for the night and sat uncomfortably, knowing there would be no sleep. It was now around 2am.

Suddenly we saw headlamps below and to our right, and heard the crunch of tires on gravel. Before we could even comprehend what was happening an SUV was directly below us on the jeep road. We realized with alarm that we were much closer to the road than we’d realized. We sat frozen. The SUV stopped and someone inside began searching the hillside with a spotlight. I hissed to “get down!” We found ourselves in the surreal position of being on our stomachs, faces I the dirt in the middle of the trail, another set of hooligans below us.

These weren’t our rednecks from earlier but who were they? Did they know we were here? Had they seen us? The searchlight switched off and the SUV began to pull forward, away from us and down the road. We were up in a flash and walking again with renewed urgency.

We walked another half mile or so until we came to a spot with some steps that seemed sufficiently far back from the jeep road. I knew the road was still not far away, but we couldn’t see it any longer, which seemed marginally safer. We sat down in the same arrangement as before, front to back. We speculated about what might be happening back at our camp, and what it might look like when we returned at sun-up. We assumed it would be ransacked.

We settled in the best we could, alternately leaning on one another and shifting frequently. The temperature had dropped to the mid 60’s – uncomfortably cool with no jacket. Melissa had thought to bring water, but her bottle was less than a quarter full, so we rationed our sips carefully. We were all parched. We felt safer now, and talked in muted whispers about the events of the night. We tried the cell occasionally and still had no success despite being higher on the mountain now. We marked time and tried to nap and did our best to get through the night, shivering and battling boredom. Which was ironic given all of the excitement. I realized that I had left my hiking pole at the other set of steps when we had to scramble away.

We sat in the dark in the middle of the Foothills Trail and we were completely unafraid of bears or snakes. Sitting exposed in the wee hours, wild animals were not our concern. Only people.

Gradually the hours slipped by and around 6am a faint, early  light began to filter through the trees. We cautiously made our way back toward camp. Despite lingering trepidation, it felt incredible to be up and moving again. We made good time, gaining confidence in proportion to the strengthening light as we walked. We were eager to see what condition our camp might be in, and to pack and be on our way. We were tired but energized all the same.

At the steps leading down to the parking lot I motioned for Melissa and Chase to stop, and I made my way down slowly, the parking lot and campsite revealing themselves by degree with each step. It was perfectly still, the gravel under my feet and birds, full in their morning song, the only sounds. I motioned for them to come on down.

Walking across the parking lot, the crazed tire tracks were clear in their figure eights and circles. Deep gouges in the surface of dirt and gravel. It was evidence that last night was real and not some shared horror dream. We got to camp and everything was intact. We were relieved and quickly set about breaking down tents and loading packs. Within 20 minutes we were loaded and walking.

We decided to walk down to the highway where we could pump water from Estatoe Creek under the Highway 178 overpass. We ate breakfast here too, just off the road at the edge of a private drive. It was an overcast morning and muggy. Cars flew by, drivers oblivious to us on the highway. Before long we were on the move, picking up the trail on the east side of the highway.

We finished the trail that day, despite plans for one more night of camping. We reached the car at Table Rock after a long 14 miles or so. We saw a couple of black bears on our hike that day, which was thrilling. But after the drama of the night before, camping in an area where we’d seen multiple bears just wasn’t appealing. We were eager to get to the car, to a hotel in Greenville. To have a shower and sleep in a comfortable bed. We were emotionally and physically exhausted.

We arrived at Table Rock around 5pm and found our car where we had left it a week before. Melissa and I had completed all 77 miles of the Foothills Trail – something I had wanted to do for a long time. Moreover, we had survived the night before and learned some things along the way. Principally, that I will never camp in the States again without a gun, which makes me sad. It shouldn’t be that way. But that is the world in which we find ourselves. I also learned that I’ll never camp that close to a highway again. And I learned that in our part of the world, where there are no Grizzlies, bears are nothing to be overly concerned about. People are a different story.

More importantly though, I learned that we were pretty good in a crisis. All of us. We worked well together, we stayed calm and we thought through our best options. We took action when we needed to and we laid low when it made sense. We didn’t let fear paralyze us. I was proud of Chase for his bravery and cool calm. I was impressed, as always, with Melissa for her toughness and spirit of adventure. We survived to hike another day, and ended up with a pretty good story to boot.

 

Sixteen thousand days gone by

It was March 17, 1973 in Houston, Texas. The Gamecock Basketball team beat a feisty Southwestern Louisiana team (now known as Louisiana-Lafayette) by a score of 90-85. It was a consolation game in the NCAA Tournament, back when they did those kinds of things. Carolina had earlier taken a 78-70 win over Texas Tech in a first round game in Wichita, Kansas, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen (there were only 32 teams in the tournament then).

The Gamecocks ran into a buzzsaw in the second round, losing 90-76 to a hot Memphis State team that would go on to play in the championship game that year, losing to the invincible John Wooden-led UCLA Bruins. Wooden and UCLA won the last of seven consecutive NCAA Championships that season. They won ten of twelve between 1964 and 1975.

There could be no way that legendary coach Frank McGuire and his boys (English, Traylor, Winters, Dunleavy, Joyce) could have known that the next day – March 18, 1973 – would begin a 44 year sojourn of futility and frustration in the tournament which, at that time, seemed like a birthright – an annual event etched as confidently on the calendars of Gamecock faithful as Christmas and Easter. As they boarded the plane from Houston back to Columbia, they must have thought that many tournament wins lay ahead.

The Gamecocks would return to the Tournament the following season, 1974, losing 75-67 in the first round to a surprisingly strong bunch of Furman Paladans in Philadelphia. It would be Coach McGuire’s final NCAA Tournament team and the Gamecock program would not return to NCAA Tournament play for another 15 years. USC was three years removed from its heated exit from the ACC. The great, natural rivalries that fueled recruiting and constant sellouts at Carolina Coliseum were gone. South Carolina now found itself wandering through the wilderness of Major Independent status. And the basketball program suffered.

Scheduling was difficult without the built-in drama of conference play. The Marquettes and Fordhams and Notre Dames of the world, solid programs though they were, did not spark the same level of fan interest. Attendance began to suffer. Recruiting began to slip. Coach McGuire’s final six seasons saw a slow decline with only two NIT appearances (’75 and ’78) and no additional 20-win seasons. It was a sad ending to one of the legendary coaching careers in the history of College Basketball.

By the spring of 1980, the legendary coach stepped down under pressure and Carolina, a half dozen years removed from their last NCAA win, managed to woo Bill Foster from Duke. It appeared an inspired hire. Foster had led the revival of a flagging Duke program, taking his 1978 team to the NCAA Championship game before losing to powerhouse Kentucky. His last three teams won two of three ACC Championships. Foster was an innovator and a nationally-recognized builder of programs.

After two rebuilding seasons, Foster’s 1983 team went 22-9 – the program’s first 20 win season since 1975. They narrowly missed the NCAA tournament and wound up in the NIT where they went 2-1, losing in the third round to former ACC rival Wake Forest. It was this NCAA snub that provided the impetus to join the Metro Conference the following year in order to re-engage in conference affiliation and bolster their future tournament resume.  Unfortunately, Foster’s program never could duplicate the success of ’83, due in part to his health problems, the upgrade in Metro competition, and a slide in recruiting during his last few years.

South Carolina hired George Felton to replace Foster in 1986 and this seemed to inject new life into the program. Felton, a top assistant on Bobby Cremins’ powerful Georgia Tech teams, was a proven recruiter and a USC letterman. He returned energy and the McGuire connection to the program, and his 1989 team marked a long-awaited return to the NCAA Tournament. Felton was a reserve on that 1974 squad – the last Gamecock tournament team – so there was added significance to his return in ’89. Things did not go well in that opening round game, however, and USC lost 81-66 to a hot-shooting N.C. State team, coached by ACC Coach of the Year, Jim Valvano and led by point guard Chris Corchiani. The Wolfpack shot 56.7% that day, the best opponent shooting percentage in South Carolina NCAA Tournament history.

Felton’s program came close again in 1991, winning 20 games in the program’s final season in the Metro Conference, but did not receive an NCAA bid, settling again for the NIT. In a still mysterious development, Athletics Director King Dixon fired Felton soon after the completion of that season, leading to a botched coaching search in which several prominent coaches turned down offers to lead the Gamecock program. Dixon ultimately hired Murray State (KY) coach Steve Newton, who would lead the program into their initial season in the SEC, in 1991-92.

It soon became apparent that Newton was in over his head. Talent was not up to SEC standards and Carolina took its lumps for several years as the new kid on the block. To compound frustrations, fellow SEC newbie Arkansas was competing for national championships at the time, winning it all in 1994.

Carolina’s next NCAA tournament invitation came in Coach Eddie Fogler’s best season at Carolina in 1997. A magical 15-1 run through the SEC and a regular-season conference championship gave the University their first SEC team championship, and is to this day their only one in Men’s Basketball. The Gamecocks entered that year’s tournament with a sparkling 24-7 record and a #2 seed in the East Regional. They would face #15 seed Coppin State out of the MEAC in Pittsburg. Many pundits predicted a final four run for Carolina, which was led by a three-headed monster in guards in B.J. McKie, Larry Davis and Melvin Watson. Tied 34-all at the half, Coppin State went on an improbable 35-14 run in the second half, ultimately pulling off the 78-65 upset, which at the that time was only the second 15-2 upset in NCAA Tournament history.

The Gamecocks returned to the Tournament the following year as a #3 seed and would go down in similar fashion to the #14 seeded Richmond Spiders in a close one, 62-61 in Washington, D.C. The wind seemed to go out of Coach Fogler’s sails after two monumental tournament upsets, and his last two teams at USC were unmemorable.

South Carolina’s next tournament appearance came in 2004, under Coach Dave Odom. Coming off of a 23 win season, the Gamecocks squared off with a Memphis squad in an ugly defensive slugfest marked by long scoreless stretches by the Garnet & Black. Carolina did not score a basket in the last 9:37 of the first half and went on to lose 59-43 in the first round game in Kansas City.

Odom would go on to have several more solid teams at Carolina which always seemed to start strong, then falter down the stretch, earning themselves NIT bids rather than NCAA. His teams won consecutive NIT Championships in 2005 and 2006, but that was not enough to revive fan interest. Coach Odom never achieved a winning SEC record and never seemed to gain favor with Gamecock fans. He was a class act, represented the University well and made admirable inroads at reconnecting with disaffected lettermen, particularly from the McGuire era. Unfortunately, that was not enough to bring an end to the now 30 year drought of NCAA Tournament wins.

Enter Darrin Horn, who parlayed a 2007 Sweet Sixteen appearance by his Western Kentucky squad into a Power 5 job at South Carolina. In his first season, 2007-08, the Gamecocks won 20 games, achieved double digit SEC wins, a share of the SEC East title, and an NIT appearance. This was accomplished with a mostly Odom-recruited team. Led by First Team SEC guard, Devon Downey, Carolina achieved a program milestone in it’s first-ever victory over a #1 nationally-ranked team at home that season versus Kentucky. This was the high-water mark of the Horn era. Reported poor relations with players and the media were distractions and Horn – a promising young coach – proved to be in over his head.

Coach Frank Martin was lured to Carolina from Kansas State in the spring of 2012 – a parting gift from Athletics Director Eric Hyman, who would soon leave for the same position at Texas A&M. Martin inherited a program in shambles, some 40 years removed from the McGuire glory years and sustained national respectability. The 18,000 seat Colonial Life Arena, which replaced the venerable Carolina Coliseum, was known as the Colonial “lifeless” arena. The arena was often so quiet that Martin claims he could overhear cellphone conversations of fans on the other side of the playing floor.

Over time, Martin built his program, instilling a toughness and fighting spirit not seen at USC in decades. Winning 14 games in each of his first two seasons, he won 17 in year three and 25 in year four. In a monumental snub by the NCAA in 2016, Carolina was left without a bid despite finishing 3rd in the SEC and winning 24 regular-season games. A 24 win Power 5 school had never been left out of the NCAA Tournament prior to 2016.

The Gamecocks would not be denied in 2017. After beefing up their strength of schedule and rolling through 12 wins in the SEC, the Gamecocks finally earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament – their first in 13 years.

In a thrilling and cathartic 40 minutes, Carolina finally managed an NCAA Tournament win versus a very talented Marquette team. And a convincing one at that, winning by 20 points in front of a partisan Gamecock crowd 100 miles from Columbia, in Greenville, South Carolina.

In round two, USC faces an old ACC nemesis, Duke. The Blue Devils are led by the same coach who took over for South Carolina-bound Bill Foster way back in 1980. The legendary Mike Krzyzewski. Duke is a #2 seed and picked by many to bring another championship back to Durham. But no matter what happens in that game, South Carolina has achieved something special. This squad of Gamecocks has ended 44 years of futility and frustration. That 44 year-old monkey no longer lives rent free on the backs and in the heads of Gamecock players, coaches and fans.

The last time Carolina won an NCAA tournament game, Carolina Coliseum had only been open five years. It was still a state-of-the-art facility. The finest in the Southeast. USC was in the midst of navigating its way through Major Independent status. The Athletics department was modernizing. Times were changing.

Richard Nixon was in his second term, the shadows of Watergate darkening by the day. The Vietnam War was mercifully winding down. Gasoline was 38 cents a gallon. The Dow Jones Industrial Average flirted with the mythical 1000 point level just before a long decline.

Long declines were the order of the day in 1973. Nobody could have known just how long or steep the decline of Gamecock Basketball would be. Certainly not that fiery Irish coach and his boys on that plane ride from Houston on the day after St. Patrick’s Day so many years ago.

16,000 days gone by. And on St. Patricks Day, exactly 44 years later, a new day dawned. And anything seems possible now.

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 10.28.05 PM

photo courtesy of the University of South Carolina

 

 

 

 

 

Triathlete Chronicles is now South By Southeast

Dear friends and loyal readers (aka, Mom & Melissa)-

Beginning today, Triathlete Chronicles is now South By Southeast. We all change and grow as time moves on, and hopefully, mature along the way. The new title and format reflects a change in my focus. While triathlon was a fantastic part of mine and Melissa’s lives for years and the inspiration for a lot of blogs, Triathlete Chronicles was always about more than triathlon. It was about travel and food and all the good things of life. The new title better reflects that. Moreover, the format was due for a fresh coat of paint.

I am looking forward to re-engaging in the blog and hope to delve into a broader range of topics to boot. I hope you enjoy the new format.

Stay tuned and thanks as always for stopping by.

-Alan

Of lawnmowers and wine coolers and a boy’s first drink

There are certain events in a boy’s life that stand out. Certain firsts. The first kiss. The first time driving a car, etc. Your first drink is one of those moments.

It was the summer of 1986 and I was 14 years old. It was an exceptionally hot and dry summer that year. There was a drought, in fact. A severe one. It was the summer before my freshman year at Spring Valley High School and I was planning to try out for the “B Squad” freshman football team. I had seen the writing on the wall the prior year when, as an eighth grader, I was sitting the bench on my middle school basketball team. I was eager to try a new sport.

My Uncle Roger was in town that summer for an extended visit and staying with us at the house on Spring Water Drive in Northeast Columbia. Roger was a character. A few years younger than my Dad, he insisted that I call him “Roger”, instead of “Uncle Roger”. For a boy steeped in Southern manners, that was kind of a big deal. It made him more approachable. More like a buddy than an authority figure. He told great, off-color jokes. We laughed a lot.

One Saturday, my Dad away on National Guard duty, Uncle Roger and I drove over to West Columbia to cut the grass at some rental properties Dad owned somewhere off of Leapheart Road. He had purchased the properties – a duplex and a triplex, I think – to ease his tax burden. Shortly after he purchased them the tax laws changed, eliminating even the meager benefit he sought to obtain. The rentals became an albatross. They weren’t in the best area and good tenants were hard to come by. Rent was paid late if at all. Evictions were frequent. Despite Dad’s best efforts at keeping the properties up, the delinquents would typically leave them in varying degrees of disrepair and squalor.

We drove over there in the family’s old Chevy Caprice Classic station wagon – the kind with simulated wood grain paneling – a family truckster extraordinaire. We started early and spent several hours cutting grass, trimming weeds and whatever else needed to be done. It was a classic July day in Columbia – unyieldingly, blisteringly hot and humid. The drought made it worse and by early afternoon, the heat beat down with a malevolence that was staggering. The air was dead still, not a pine needle stirred. Everyone with a drop of sense was inside. The constant undulating song of Cicadas seemed to drown out even the drone of the lawnmower.

Parched and needing to hydrate, we took a break and drove over to a gas station around the corner. Walking into the store we were greeted with a welcome blast of air conditioning that made me nearly light headed. I was headed over to grab a Gatorade when I noticed Uncle Roger already at the counter checking out. He motioned for me to meet him back at the car and when he walked out with a grin, carrying a brown paper bag, I was intrigued.

We drove back to the triplex and parked in an empty driveway. He put the car in park and reached into the bag. I was surprised but delighted when he handed me a Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler. He reached back into the bag and pulled out a Budweiser tall boy for himself.

Now, Bartles & Jaymes may seem like an ignominious beginning for a man’s drinking journey, but I tell you with all sincerity, it was magical for a thirsty fourteen year old Baptist boy. I opened the twist top and the very sound was pleasing – that release of compressed air and the mild, malty aroma that followed. I remember the beads of condensation on the label as I tipped the bottle to my lips expectantly. It was cold and the bottle somehow just felt good in my hand.

That first swallow was amazing. Slightly citrus, but enough malt and alcohol to make their presence known. I liked it and finished it quickly. After, there was a novel, if very mild buzz. The world took on a pleasing hue. The bouquet of sour sweat and gasoline and freshly cut grass and alcohol was pleasurable. Uncle Roger let me take a couple of swigs from his Budweiser and I immediately liked the taste of that too. Heavier malt with a pleasing bite as it went down.

The world slowed. We sat there in the car with the windows rolled down and the radio on – John Mellencamp singing about pink houses, the late afternoon heat beginning to relent a bit. I knew that I had crossed some sort of bridge into another, more worldly realm. I smiled a goofy smile, sublimely satisfied. After a while, we finished the mowing and headed back toward home.

Thinking back on it now, it’s as though that moment is encased in museum glass. There was something so understated and masculine about it (in spite of the wine cooler). An uncle and his nephew sharing a drink after toiling in the hot sun. A reward. A rite of passage. A bonding moment. Somehow, 31 years have gone by since that day. But I remember it like it was last week.

Verona

Each day on our recent trip with good friends Martin and Misa through parts of Czech Republic, Austria, Italy and Croatia, I would sit in the RV while Martin drove and, with questionable penmanship exacerbated by a bumpy road, scrawl a barely-legible account of the previous days adventures. The following is an entry from one of our favorite days, and by far our favorite meal…

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A change of plans yesterday took us to Verona. It was a wonderful night in one of the loveliest cities I have ever seen.

Misa found a perfect campground atop an ancient castle – Castel San Pietro, which sits on a high bluff overlooking the city. The city center is compact and perfect for walking, which we did happily after a long day of driving.

VeronaIt was a gorgeous, mild evening, just an hour or so before dusk when we descended into the city from the campground. As we did the sun cast a beautiful light on the red clay rooftops and ancient buildings and cobbled alleyways.

We were eager for wine and stopped first in a charming corner establishment, the Cappa Café. There was a fine, large balcony overlooking the wide, swift-moving Adige River, which bisects the town. We sat initially there but moved inside to a cozy table due to the dropping temperature and chilly breeze off of the river.

We spent a couple of hours there, laughing and telling stories over two bottles of good red wine. Verona was working it’s charms.

After, we strolled some more, slightly buzzed and happy. We took in a two thousand year old Roman coliseum, the Verona Arena, which is still in use today and famous for it’s large-scale opera productions. It was spectacular and reminded me of the blinding pace of change in the US. For example, the wonderful Carolina Coliseum in Columbia was only built in 1968 and was state of the art at the time. It was replaced over ten years ago by another, more modern facility. Sad. But that rant is for another blog.

We ambled over to Casa Guilietta for a glimpse at Juliet’s balcony from Romeo and Juliet – by far the most frequented tourist destination in Verona and a little crowded even in the off season on a Wednesday night. We people-watched, inhaling the salt-tinged perfume of the early evening air while walking a little more. Between the wine and the walking, we were ready to eat.

As we made our way back across the river toward the campsite, we settled on an enchanting little restaurant within the shadow of Castel San Pietro – Alcova del Frote Osteria. The “osteria” caught my attention and I immediately craved oysters.

We were seated in a private room downstairs in the wine cellar. The room was small and cozy with just one table. Dried hams and sausages hung from rough-hewn ceiling beams and candles cast soft light on the shelves of local and regional wine lining every wall from floor to ceiling. It was a room built for luxuriant dining.

We started with what might have been the best red wine I have ever tasted – a locally produced, small batch wine – Valpolicello, 2011. Amazing, peppery and boldy flavorful. We ordered ham three ways – dark, Spanish and Italian with sweet marinated tomoatos. Of course, we ordered local oysters, and they were beautiful, meaty and fresh, tasting strongly of the Mediterranean – briny and delicious. Polenta cakes with scallops and potato puret – amazing.

I ordered horse, for the dark novelty of it more than anything. It was prepared both grilled (spectacular) and carpacio, which was good as well but not as flavorful. We had the best pasta aldente any of us had ever tasted. It was light, topped with local olive oil and fresh olives. Pasta is ruined for me now because I will always judge it based on that dish and it will always fall short – I know this even now. There were also wonderful pan-roasted potatoes and at some point, another bottle of wine, this time a Heletto – also local, but smoother and equally wonderful. We coined a new word – “Foogasm” – and we were fully in the throes of multiple foogasms at this point.

We finished with dessert, which was a mix of tiramisu, cheesecake and chocolate mousse, presented on twelve large spoons – samples of all three for each of us. It was outstanding, but at this point we were in danger of sudden-onset gout. Good Italian coffee helped to settle over-burdened stomachs, but what we really needed was a walk.

I must mention as well that our waiter was tremendous. He was patient, charming and knowledgeable, offering suggestions unobtrusively and picking our wine after thoughtful questions. He was professional in every way and made our evening immeasurably more enjoyable than it could have been otherwise.

After, we shuffled back to camp, zombie-like and deeply satisfied. It was the meal of the year.

Verona reminded me vaguely of Charleston with it’s well-worn charm and seaside aromas. It made me want to sell everything and move there. To learn just enough Italian to get by and to spend my days writing and eating and walking it’s cobbled streets. I think I could talk Melissa into that…

Big Sky love – Missoula

The plane made its approach, zeroing in on the lone strip of linear asphalt among the surrounding blonde foothills and the high mountains just beyond. Missoula is ringed by numerous mountain ranges – the Bitterroots, the Garnet range and the Rattlesnake Mountains, among yet others and the wildness of it filled our tiny airplane window. The mild jolt of landing and squealing of tires told us we were finally in Western Montana. Ten days of vacation lay out before us like some uncharted and meandering river full of possibility and maybe – just maybe – a little danger.

Welcome to Missoula

Welcome to Missoula

Exiting the plane, we felt the cool Montana air which was medicinal after the burdensome August humidity we left behind in Raleigh. It was in the mid-60’s at 1:15 pm Mountain Time and, overpowering the wafting fumes of jet fuel was the scent of pine-tinged alpine air – clean, dry and inviting.  Greeting us in the small terminal was a massive Grizzly, standing and glancing toward the baggage claim area intently, as if watching the conveyer belt for his luggage. His front paws were as large as dinner plates and he must have stood twelve feet high. It was a dramatic display of taxidermal artistry and it was as close to one of those big boys as I ever hoped to come.

 

A hike to the “M”

We quickly loaded our bags into the rental, which we were excited to find was a cavernous GMC Acadia SUV complete with sunroof. After a short drive into town, we checked into the Double Tree Hotel – a sprawling 60’s era hotel which the Hilton chain has renovated admirably. Truth be told, the property likely would have met the wrecking ball years before had it not been for its prime location, right on the banks of the lovely Clark Fork River and adjacent to the University of Montana campus. Melissa had been steadily researching things to do and places to eat, so after a quick change of clothes we set out on foot for the U of M campus and a hike up to the iconic “M” on Mount Sentinel.

The switchback trail up Mount Sentinel was first constructed by forestry students in 1908 and the large “M” was initially constructed of white washed rocks. In 1968 the rocks were replaced by a 125′ by 100′ concrete “M”, which is still in place today. It is visible throughout the city of Missoula and looms large over the U of M campus. As we headed up the trail – a mile from its base on the east end of campus to the top – the views of campus and town grew more sweeping and dramatic with each step. We paused several times to admire the impressive view and let our lungs adjust to the 5,000 foot elevation.

The U of M Grizzly statue, with University Hall and Mount Sentinel in the background - note the "M" high above

The U of M Grizzly statue, with University Hall and Mount Sentinel in the background – note the “M” high above

The view from the top was splendid and we took our time, enjoying the vantage point and still-novel cool air. The campus below, with it’s leafy canopy, distinguished red brick buildings and manicured lawns was charming and inviting as only college campuses can be. It was move-in week and students milled about, looking like so many busy ants from our high perch, carrying boxes and filling dorm rooms with personal effects in preparation for the start of fall semester. There was a palpable buzz of youthful energy in the air and the entire scene filled me with nostalgia and no small amount of envy for those students. I realized that in very short order I had fallen in love with Missoula and the University of Montana.

After a walk down the mountain and a brief tour through the rest of campus, we walked just over a mile, more or less along the Clark Fork River to Caras Park where each Thursday night during the summer the City of Missoula hosts a festival with live music, food and drinks. We were suddenly famished from our walking and became big fans of the Missoula food truck scene. I ordered chorizo tacos, Melissa had Thai and we sat on a park bench gazing out over the swift flowing Clark Fork, happily sipping offerings from local Big Sky Brewery. The people watching was impressive. One lady, who must have been eight months, 29 days and 23 hours pregnant posed for pictures nearby wearing only a sports bra and very short shorts. I was reminded of the local slogan, “keep Missoula weird”, and I believe this lady took that slogan to heart and was doing her part to make it happen.

After a while, with darkness gathering and temperatures falling squarely into the jacket range – a splendid novelty for a Carolinian in August – we walked back to the hotel as a light rain settled in. While Melissa showered I sat on the patio of our 2nd floor room, contentedly sipping a bourbon, listening to the rain and writing in my journal. Day one of our long anticipated vacation was in the books with nine days to go. I was as happy in that moment as it is possible to be.

Smokejumpers, hot springs and a glimpse of Idaho

We started the day with a solid breakfast at Catalyst Cafe on North Higgins Avenue downtown. A veggie scramble with a side of bacon for Melissa and wonderful huevos rancheros for me. Gratifyingly sated and ready for our first full day in Montana, we headed out for the Missoula Smokejumper Museum located at the Aerial Fire Depot and Smokejumper Center, near the Missoula airport.

Smokejumpers are the elite airborne firefighters of the U.S. Forest Service and I have always been fascinated with them. Smokejumping, or at least the idea of it, has been around nearly as long as the airplane. According to the National Smokejumper Training Guide, as early as 1917, airplanes were used for aerial fire detection. By the 1920’s, the initial attempts at aerial fire suppression were underway, with containers of water and/or foam being dumped from buckets, tin cans and in at least one instance, an 8 gallon oak beer barrel attached to a parachute. By 1939, live jumps were being made with some regularity via the Aerial Fire Control Experimental Project in the vicinity of Winthrop, Washington. The following year, 1940, was the first operational year for airborne firefighting, and the Smokejumpers have been at it ever since.

Perhaps the most famous and tragic event in the history of the organization was immortalized in the excellent “Young Men and Fire” by Norman Maclean (of “A River Runs Through It” fame). Maclean worked in Western Montana logging camps as a young man and became fascinated with the story of the Mann Gulch tragedy of 1949. During the tragedy, 12 Smokejumpers out of a crew of 15 were killed by a fast moving fire in Helena National Forest, Montana. The Forest Service took many lessons from the tragedy, incorporating advanced training techniques, equipment and strategies, as well as a focus on fire suppression and research into the science of fire behavior.The museum was outstanding and admirably relayed the history of the Smokejumpers, which in turn, provided texture to the evolution of flight and firefighting during the 20th Century.

By the time we exited the museum, around 11am, we were eager to make our way to LoLo Hot Springs, about 45 minutes west. Our plan here was to spend a lazy afternoon in the rejuvenating natural hot springs getting exceedingly pruned. Upon our arrival, we found what appeared to be a Branch Davidian-style compound of ramshackle buildings, one of which contained a casino (casinos are ubiquitous in Montana).

There were no natural hot springs anywhere that I could tell and we were beyond disappointed by this. After five minutes of walking around the property, I did find a building with a small sign which promisingly read “natural hot spring this way” and walked inside. This was a pay-to-soak operation in a rundown cinder block building – the likes of which made me wonder if I was due for a tetanus shot. Reluctant to part with the $7 apiece entrance fee based on what I had seen thus far, I asked the gum-smacking, mouth-breathing attendant if I could have a look around. She responded with a dull-eyed wave of her hand, which I took to mean “whatever”, but could also have meant “go fuck yourself”- her demeanor left room for interpretation.

I made my way through the noxious, moldy locker room, which was discernible from hell only by it’s lack of stalactites and cloven-hooved beelzebubs, to the promised hot springs in the back of the property. I was disappointed, though not entirely surprised, to find a grey concrete bunker of a pool – a fetid basin of dubious origin – in which two heavily tattooed and glassy-eyed teenage girls sat slack-jawed and glum – as if serving some strange penance.

I made a hasty retreat to the car and we were quickly on our way. Happily, a little farther up Highway 12 at the Montana-Idaho line, we discovered the LoLo National Forest Visitor’s Center. Here, we learned that that just 22 miles further west along Highway 12 sat Jerry Johnson natural hot springs in the Clearwater National Forest. No charge, no concrete, no fetid basins of dubious origin. This would be the real deal.

We parked on the side of the road, just past mile marker 22 in Idaho proper. I was thrilled that we were suddenly and quite unexpectedly spending part of our vacation in Idaho – a mild yet pleasing diversion from our carefully plotted itinerary. After a quick change into bathing suits, we walked a mile or so along the west bank of the Lochsa River which beckoned us with a wild and splendid beauty. We were carried along by the sound of running water and the smell of lodgepole pine and spruce – it smelled like a Christmas tree farm in heaven.

We found a private little pool and spent a half hour soaking in the just-right water as steam rose off of the river and the the spindly tops of conifers tickled a low-hanging gauze of pending storm clouds. We gazed out over the Lochsa, taking in the wildness of it all. It seemed like a grizzly or a moose might amble out of the tree line any minute for a drink, or a flash flood might come roaring down from the north with hardly a notice. It seemed an untamed, even vaguely dangerous place compared to the world we had left behind in Raleigh. But at that moment, it was perfection.

Chased off earlier than we would have liked by rumbling thunder, we hiked back to the car and drove east to Missoula, happy with our little adventure and thankful that we didn’t settle for the incalculably sucky LoLo Hot Springs.

A stroll through town

After showers back in Missoula, we walked from the hotel to Red Bird Cafe, downtown. Located in the historic Florence Hotel building, Red Bird was exactly what we were looking for – great food, a nice atmosphere, somewhat upscale, yet not pretentious – for our last night in town before encountering the relative deprivations of Glacier National Park. This place delivered. To start, we each had a glass of excellent Spanish Cava and split an appetizer of lamb sausage with peas and heirloom tomatoes, and ravioli stuffed with parmesan and mushrooms. We moved onto red wine and a beautifully done (medium rare) steak strip green salad. We finished with espresso, then strolled back to the hotel through the cool Montana evening air. It was misting softly now, though not enough to soak in, and the low 60’s temperature was invigorating.

As we walked along newly familiar streets back to the DoubleTree we talked about our trip so far and were amazed at all we had done in just over 24 hours. I waxed poetic about moving to Missoula and Melissa seemed to be as excited as I was. Tomorrow would bring a three and a half hour drive to the West Gate of Glacier National Park, followed by the legendary Going to the Sun Road, which traverses the park from southwest to northeast. But tomorrow would come soon enough and this night we were still enjoying Missoula and all of its charms.

 

Laurel Falls to Table Rock – three days on the Foothills Trail – Conclusion

In spite of the relatively short duration of our trip, by the time we woke on Sunday morning – our final day on the trail – it seemed like ages since Brooks had dropped us off at Laurel Falls. With only a five and a half mile trek to Table Rock, we were excited about completing our journey and about the upcoming night in Greenville (wives! showers! cold drinks!). But we were also determined to enjoy our last hours on the trail. Our walk on Sunday would include Pinnacle Mountain and Drawbar Cliffs which were reputed to provide breathtaking views. They would not disappoint.

Ashten and the familiar white blaze of the Foothills Trail

Ashten and the familiar white blaze of the Foothills Trail

We ate breakfast, quickly stuffed our packs and were walking by 8:30. As was the case throughout our days on the trail, Ashten took the lead. At 12 years old, he definitely had the most energy of anyone and took great pride in being our “spider web catcher”, knocking down webs for the rest of us. The walking was strenuous and uphill as we made our way to a bald granite overlook a few hundred feet below the tree-covered summit of Pinnacle Mountain.  Though Sassafras Mountain is the highest peak in South Carolina, a portion of that mountain extends into North Carolina, making Pinnacle the highest mountain entirely contained within the borders of the Palmetto State, at 3,415 feet.

Grant and Ashten perched atop Pinnacle as Alan (left) takes in the views

Grant and Ashten perched atop Pinnacle as Alan (left) takes in the views

The views from the granite outcropping on the eastern side of the mountain were truly spectacular. It was a clear day and we could see for miles, including outstanding views of Table Rock and Paris Mountain. We lingered, snapping pictures and soaking in the incredible scenery. Everyone agreed, it was worth the 22 mile walk just for this vantage point alone.

From there it was less than a mile to more stunning scenery at Drawbar Cliffs. Where the outcropping at Pinnacle was a true cliff with a dramatic and knee buckling drop-off, Drawbar was a gently sloping granite face which invited – insisted upon – a lingering stop. We happily did just that. With views of Lake Keowee and miles beyond, we were again handsomely rewarded for our efforts.

All downhill and waterfalls galore

At length, we bid adieu to Drawbar and rejoined the trail. From here it was a relatively easy downhill jaunt over the last three miles to Table Rock State Park. After seeing almost no water on Saturday, it was in abundant supply on this last stretch, including over a dozen medium to small waterfalls. It felt like we were back in a rainforest, which technically speaking, we were.

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An orange salamander making his way along the trail

Along the way we passed an intriguing orange salamander and two snakes – the second of which darted onto the trail right in front of Cole, causing him to shatter the State high jump record.

As we grew closer to Table Rock we began to pass day hikers headed in the opposite direction to take in the views we had just enjoyed. From our bulbous packs, generally disheveled appearance and impressive bouquet, they likely thought we were completing the full 77 mile hike from Oconee State Park. We were happy to let them think that.

Nearing Table Rock - a slippery rock crossing

Nearing Table Rock – a slippery rock crossing

By noon we were done. Back at the Table Rock parking lot, we made a b-line for the lake and a refreshing dip. By 1pm, we were reunited with Fran, who had spent the previous evening in nearby Hendersonville, N.C. and had thoughtfully packed a cooler of cold Coca-colas for us. We loaded our packs and drove south to Traveler’s Rest where we had a highly anticipated lunch of burgers and beer at Shortfield’s. We called wives, debriefed about our trip, caught up with Fran and entered a state of enraptured joy over our first “real” food in several days. We were a grubby but happy bunch.

Happy reunions and a stroll along Main Street, Greenville

It was wonderful to see Melissa and the other Herr girls when we arrived at the Hampton Inn just off Main in downtown Greenville. Melissa gave me a warm hug and peck on the cheek but otherwise, smartly kept her distance until I could shower. I can’t say that I blamed her.

We gathered for drinks before dinner at Sip – a cool rooftop wine bar with great views of a bustling Main Street two floors below. Afterward, as we ambled along a busy sidewalk on the way to dinner, it felt strange to walk without a pack, unburdened and light of step, and odd not to be on the lookout for a suitable campsite at that time of day. I was reminded how quickly you fall into routine in the woods and how powerful those routines can be. And despite the unbridled joy of a much needed shower and the fun of being with family in my old town, I found myself missing the trail.

We ate that night at Soby’s on Main, a downtown Greenville institution since I lived there in the late 90’s. It was a sensational meal and still somewhat novel to eat off of plates rather than out of a freeze-dried meal sack.

After dinner, Melissa and I strolled hand-in-hand along Main in the fading light, through Greenville’s recently revitalized West End district. The West End area was, when I lived in Greenville, an old warehouse district, mostly abandoned and in serious decay. You wouldn’t walk there after dark. But over the past 15 years it has experienced a tremendous revitalization, including the demolition of Camperdown Road bridge, which opened up views of the lovely Reedy River Falls. The concrete monstrosity of a bridge was replaced by a dramatic and elegant pedestrian bridge and below that, a revitalized Reedy River Park. This investment in turn, attracted a splendid minor league ballpark and countless restaurants and shops as well as the renovation of most of the old buildings along the Main Street corridor. The result has been nothing short of amazing. Downtown Greenville is thriving and provides a powerful testament to the importance of public green space.

A walk in the woods in perspective

We walked 22 miles over two and a half days. We spent two nights on the trail, clambered over some challenging peaks, sweated buckets, enjoyed some spectacular overlooks, burned countless calories and overcame a few obstacles along the way. But to put this into humbling perspective, we covered just 1% of the length of the 2,180 mile Appalachian Trail. We averaged around 8.8 miles a day during our walk. At that pace, hiking the Appalachian Trail would take us over eight months. It takes most through hikers five to six months. On Monday I found a four foot high wall map of the AT at Mast General Store in Greenville. To put our little walk into further perspective, those 22 miles, when measured against the four foot wall map, represent about the width of a fingernail.

But even still, as Bill Bryson put it so well, we can gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, “Yeah, I’ve shit in the woods.”