Saturday, November 18, 2017

Pisgah National Forest, An Uncalled For Adventure

We took a walk along a riverbank as part of my plan to enjoy a week off and walk my dog mercilessly while we were in Western North Carolina. I had never been here before but Geeta and Bob assured me it was a worthwhile walk and I had no reason not to believe them. This area around Asheville is filled with trails and forests and mountains.  
The rivers are just some of the strange names you will encounter in these mountains. Mount Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi is named for the man who proclaimed it the highest peak, a fact that is not obvious when looking at it. Indeed he died in a fall while surveying his mountain in an effort to prove it's height...A major river around here is known as the French Broad which puts me in mind of a Gallic woman flouncing her hips... while the South Toe needs no great imagination to see it as oddly named.
Why it's a toe I don't know but it is of course utterly beguiling as it flows through the awkwardly named Pisgah National Forest. Which was the scene of our walk.
I wore my winter outfit of a wool cap, a windproof vest, shorts and in a concession to the season I replaced my Crocs with sneakers and socks. My in-laws were rather more mountaineering with heavy clothes and lumpy backpacks. I figured I could survive a stroll without water, a choice that later looked rather more foolhardy than I would ever have expected.
Geeta and Bob moved to the Burnsville area in the 1970s and Bob took up being a house husband in their self built home in Celo Community, 1100 acres of land founded by some Quakers and now occupied by families seeking a return to the earth kind of life not exactly off the grid but trying to work their way there. Geeta (pronounced with a hard G) is a family practitioner by trade and she works part time in retirement but she came to Appalachia to do good doctoring in an underserved community and ended up falling in love with the mountains. 
They are activists in the gentle granola sort of way that requires much talking and  traveling and gathering and discussing and fellowship and all that stuff that bores me to death. But they are a power couple in Celo where they have lived for more than 40 years and steered their community making friends along the way with people all over the world. They do however also share a slightly impractical streak. 
I like to walk at the back on these expeditions because I can stop to take photographs more easily, or in pausing to look around I am not holding anyone up, though this style of strolling requires some scampering from time to time to keep the expedition moving. 
And there is so much to look at. My style of photography ends up being on the run always, at home because of Rusty on his walks,  and when away because I am the back end of the line on the expedition and no one else carries a camera. I have no time to compose a shot, use a tripod, play with shutter speed or aperture or anything like that. Luckily the scenery in these parts tends to take care of itself....and modern cameras are amazing when it comes to broadly focused pictures.
And then there is the moment a splash of color catches my eye and I stand on the trail fiddling with the manual focus.
The walk in the afternoon sunlight was delightful. 
The adopted North Carolinians  took time to look around at their home state too. They have recently been busy climbing mountain passes in Asia and they climbed the highest peak in the continental United States but they are not as avid local walkers as am I wherever I go.I like to walk so my visits tend to bring out the local hiker in them. And I am glad of that as one can easily get lost in these parts.As we shall see.
Rusty had a grand time in these unfamiliar woods. He is a product of South Florida and I don't think he had ever previously seen 35 degree night time temperatures. While he is entirely at home running and splashing through the mangroves these temperate forests intimidate him a bit. He gathered his courage from being part of a group and he dashed back and forth and sideways wearing himself out most satisfactorily. 
I think I needed a faster shutter speed...
Geeta got new hips a couple of years ago and she is enjoying a fresh chance at mobility. 
Me? I liked the cool air, the rocks and the thick deciduous leaf carpet.
Bob was having fun too even though he looks pained.
The campground was closed for the season and deserted. The toilets unfortunately were locked. So we pressed on. 
Geeta and Bob are talkers. For some years Geeta was following an Indian guru who recommended a period of meditative silence every morning which I thought was weird. But there again I think the whole concept of adopting Indian culture is weird. Now that India has slipped off her radar the machinery of conversation never slows down so the walk is not simply punctuated but it is accompanied by two  streams of consciousness from the two walkers, streams often intersect but also tend to veer off in separate streams simultaneously. For meditative me the pursuit of silence is another reason to hang back and fiddle with my apparatus.
In the distance they were talking about what the trail did next, how lucky they are to live here, how warm the sun is for November, how to cook vegetables for dinner,  how much they saved buying their hiking shoes, how wrong Bob is about the time it takes to walk up Mount Mitchell and so forth. I blotted it all out and spent too much time peering through the viewfinder, seeking another quieter world.
The ravages of power lines were pointed out to me, though no one I think begrudges the convenience of electricity. Indeed my brother-in-law Bob has installed electric heat in the home he built for them in Celo Community. This innovation has opened up a new world of retirement for the 70 year-olds. The idea of having to feed a wood stove to stay warm was making them think of possibly moving to Asheville as much as they like a wood fire.
Electric heat has them convinced they can stay on in the woods for the rest of their lives. All thanks to these disfiguring power lines, or others like them:
Philosophy aside Rusty was ready to keep running. I caught him with his famous resting bitch face but he was actually having a blast and that made me happy. He never talks on the trail and that makes me happy too. 
Another pause and a quick twist of the shutter speed, not that quick actually got me a brief moment to capture running water, not a sight I see in the Florida Keys: 
It was at this point that it began to be brought home to us that time was passing. And not in our favor. We had people coming to dinner and Bob was fretting about food prep and the need to get back so we stopped as the trail climbed away from the river and we set about discussing options. Not that I had anything to say as I had no clue where we were, or so I thought.
I was not in favor of splitting up but Bob decided to hike back to the car and drive it up the road on the other side of the river and meet Geeta Rusty and I at a bridge a bit further up the trail.  This would save time and allow the fretting Bob to get us all back to the house in time to chop vegetables and season flounder for dinner. Geeta and I took off up the trail and Bob hurried away behind us. 
After a while Geeta lost her nerve as the trail switched back up the hillside away from the river. Were we inadvertently headed up Mount Mitchell? Was there really a bridge further up the trail so we could reunite with Bob and the Prius? We paused a second to consult and even though I was enjoying myself I could see a long night of mutual recriminations ahead if Bob didn't get back to his vegetables in time. He is rather rigid that way.  I voted for an immediate return to the car. Which decision suddenly filled us with panic. What if Bob got to the car and passed the bridge closer to the campground before we got back there? He would drive all unknowing back up the road to the mythic second bridge and we wouldn't be there and we had no cell phones (no coverage in these hollows...) so Geeta  took off like a mountain goat leaping down the trail to intercept her husband before he drove past the campground bridge...
Suddenly I was liberated. The sounds of nattering ceased, all I could hear was the burbling of the Toe River and the rustle of the breeze in the naked trees above me.  With Geeta dashing off like a cat with its tail on fire I had no need to run, she would intercept the wayward Prius and I could amble up at my leisure. Hmm I wonder how that massive footbridge would look in black and white? Let's see...This must have been Rusty's favorite part of what was in the end our three hour walk. He galloped off up the trail to join Geeta in her forced march, then he turned around and hared down the trail to join me for a few minutes, pause to take a drink from the river then gallop off to see where Geeta had got to.
I thought the tree could benefit from some monochrome treatment too.  So I paused and clicked away. I think it was about then that I decided to come back just with Rusty at some future date and spend some time in my own meditative bubble here. I was wandering around the bridge at the campground looking at water and leaves and Rusty panting when Geeta called me to my duty across the bridge.
I walked away from the campground and crossed the bridge where Geeta instructed me to stand by the  road and keep watch for Bob speeding by to rescue us. I dutifully stood by the road while Geeta  studied the map on the board to try and figure out if her memory was defective about the second bridge up the trail. Later she told us with some satisfaction her memory had not failed her and the bridge was about a third of mile ahead of where we had turned back. Nevertheless we felt it had been better to not keep going on the vague hope of a distant memory. We had no idea at the time how lucky it was we had turned back to meet Bob in the car.
 It was while Geeta was measuring distances on the map board that I saw Bob walking up the road toward us carrying a plastic bag. What The Hell?  "Geeta" I said. "Bob's walking up the road." She looked at me as though I were demented - of course he was walking. To get the car.  No, I said. He's walking toward us now.  She looked around and to her astonishment her wayward husband was indeed walking wearily up the gravel road. I couldn't understand it. I thought maybe the talk earlier of being low on gas had turned into running out of gas (they are a disorganized couple if I hadn't made that clear so running out of gas is quite on the cards for them). I figured his bag was essential supplies to keep us going while we organized rescue.
"I couldn't find the car" Bob lamented as he reached us. His bag of "essential supplies" was trash he had picked up roadside on his odyssey. God God I thought to myself we're stranded like a bunch of drunk tourists who lose their car in Key West. And we couldn't even dial 911 for help. Rusty was not in the least worried and continued sniffing the edges of the road, running back and forth, side to side.
"I don't know what I did," Bob said "I came across a suburban development I hadn't seen before and I obviously missed the car so I started walking back." Said the man who needed to get home to chop vegetables. Geeta assessed the situation in a  flash and set off again at high speed down the road back to where we left the car. Bob Rusty and I followed at a more measured pace. I was no longer alone and had to endure Bob muttering like a demented geographer at my side "I know where we left it and I have no idea where it is now," as we walked along. "Perhaps I got turned around?" Well, yes Bob you must have. It was still a lovely evening and I was enjoying the scenery and the fresh air and the sunshine, even though the mountains were now casting shadows and we were walking in their shade.
We walked past two houses set in the fields alongside the road. "Is this the subdivision?" I asked Bob who is prone to exaggerating his irritations."I got confused," he said. "This is as far as I got before I turned back." What? I listened aghast. "What were you doing here?" I asked. "All you had to do was walk down the river trail the way we came. The car is at the trail head, and I'll bet it's where we left it." He looked a bit defensive. "I wanted to save time by taking the road and then I got confused." Bollocks I thought to myself. Now it was obvious what had happened. He never reached the car and he gave up half a mile short of the car on the road. The road was curving away from the river and it was clear we had to follow it round where it would meet the river again at the trail head parking lot. In the second picture of this very long essay the river is behind the black Range Rover parked next to our Prius (which at least hadn't run out of gas - yet).
In point of fact I wasn't that worried or upset. I had nowhere to be, I was on vacation, but these two were setting themselves up to ruin dinner plans which would set them off on endless lamentation and gnashing of teeth if things continued badly wrong. I insisted on enjoying the walk as Bob mumbled alongside me about the still missing car. It was only missing in his head.
Geeta was far ahead of us by the time we came to a junction in the road. "I remember this," Bob announced brightly. "I don't," I growled because I never did remember us coming to any intersection after we turned off the main road at the golf club. "I remember this house," Bob said. "I don't," I replied. "Besides," I said," if we had passed it you'd have grumbled about the stars and stripes flying on the porch."  "Not at all," he protested. "I was annoyed by the flag put up on the bridge because that's public property," he said referring to a long monologue that had filled the car from the front passenger seat as we drove to the parking lot area. I sure did remember us passing that bridge with the cheery colors of the flag flapping in the sunshine as Bob grumbled about someone taking liberties with public property. 
We got back to the car parked exactly where we left it. Of Geeta there was no sign. How the hell was that possible? Then Bob got a fresh cause for lament "She's got the key," he said apparently more worried about the key than his now missing wife. I gave up. None of this made sense so I sat down on a convenient log and enjoyed the last rays of sunshine under an amazing cerulean sky. "Bob," I said, "quit your bitchin'. Its a beautiful day and even though we can't get home we might as well accept that, until Geeta chooses to materialize back on our astral plane."  His grumbling faded to a low background buzzing. Rusty chased shadows in the long grass.
"She turned the wrong way at the intersection," Bob said with a bright note in his voice, Sherlock Holmes had puzzled it out. "Why the hell would she do that?" I inquired. "Obviously the road curved around this way," I said. But what seemed obvious to me was not that clear to the locals. Indeed Geeta had turned right at the intersection and had gone on a misguided hike to nowhere at high speed until a passing local set her right. What makes this comedy of errors even more weird is that if you asked my wife she would tell you I have absolutely no sense of direction. And yet I never really felt lost all afternoon, at least not as lost as my erstwhile guides.  All we ever had to do was follow the river.
We got home in good order and fed the cat who was staying up high while Rusty was on the premises and then Bob set to work on the much discussed vegetables. Apparently we were having some long time friends of Bob and Geeta over for dinner. He is a vegan and she hates fish so naturally the main course was flounder. Isn't that a bit passive aggressive I asked, wondering what kind of dinner party was going to end this most peculiar day. Oh no they said, these are some of our oldest friends, they'll understand.  
They actually were quite casual about it and brought a suitably vegan dish to fend off malnutrition. Bob also made a bowl of beets without goat's cheese and the salad was also suitably animal-free and apparently so was the wine.
Outside the temperature dropped, not enough to bother the cat they told me, but we were inside with the fire and the wine and my dog got sleepy and pretty soon, ignoring his own dinner, scampered up to bed to pass out sprawled across my comforter. 
If the walk was enough to wear out young Rusty I guess it was a fine walk and getting lost just made it all the better.