the beautiful autumn colors of the Smokey Mountains

2015 USA

Dolly Sods Part 2: Just Keep Going

7 November 2015 | Mri Grout

Lifelong Vagabonds' shadow hiking through Dolly SodsAfter an hour and a half spent drying out on the rocks at Dolly Sods, Rob and I finally began our hike for reals. We were very happy to note that the trail was of a much better quality than the one we (weren't) on before, though all that really meant was that we could figure out where we were supposed to go a good 80% of the time. As we'd later find out, however, this trail was by far the easiest to follow. It was also the driest and we went in the dry season. For anyone considering hiking this neck of the woods, I would highly recommend wearing waterproof boots (not shoes) and picking up one of the walking sticks left at the beginning of the trailhead. Regardless of whether or not you like to use them, they make a very handy mud/water depth-discovering stick – which you will need. A second point is that should there actually be any bears, you'd already have a whacking tool at hand.

A point I truly recognized when there was a silent rustling in the trees below us. Automatically, I knew it wasn't a harmless squirrel or chipmunk because despite their size, they are by far the loudest thing in the woods (with the exception being humans of course). Nervously, I stopped and looked down, my eyes peeled for the bear I just knew was there.

I scanned the ground and then the top of the trees, but I couldn't see a single black ball of fur, which was a problem. Especially if I was the prey and it was the hunter; it always helped to be able to see your attacker. I eyed Rob wondering if I had the time to kick him in the leg when he said, "Oh look!"

Given that he didn't scream it, I decided it might not be a bear after all and so held off on kicking his shins. In my defence, he'd totally do the same and I know that for a fact because last night we'd talked about what to do if a bear attacked the tent. He'd cut a new door and make a run for it, leaving me to be eaten all by my lonesome self. I'd scramble after him as I threw rocks at his legs. Ah, can't you just feel the love? lols.

Anyway, it turned out that the quiet rustling at the bottom of Rob's pointed finger wasn't in fact a bear at all. Rather two white-tailed deer stood as still as they could, well camouflaged in the trees. Luckily for me and my poor eyesight 'as well as they could' meant the occasional movement to scratch their hind legs.

deer laughing in the woods of Dolly Sods
Lifelong Vagabonds in the autumn colors of Dolly Sods

After a short time spent admiring their beauty we set off again with the hope of reaching camp before lunchtime (time being a relative term as we'd had breakfast at 11am...). A hope that didn't last more than thirty minutes as upon scrambling up some rocks we ran into another person.

After an hour of chatting and comparing rucksacks (what else do men compare?), we parted ways. Ben had a new contact for a paragliding flight and we had two litres less water to carry and some water purification pills to make up for it. The only down side to that exchange was we weren't planning on camping near a water source – an issue I hadn't reminded Rob of fast enough Too late now; the only thing to do was to change our hiking plans to end up near a stream.

A quick look at the map had us adding another mile to our journey, but despite my overly tired legs, I'm quit glad we did. The scenery on that detour trail was fairly different to the rest of the area; it actually looked like what I assumed Canada would be like. Little white moss covering the ground and lots of evergreens. The only thing missing was a grizzly, but I was okay with that. I was far too tired to run.

Actually, scratch that. Water was also missing – you know, that thing we planned on camping nearby when we poured the majority of our water out...

Yeah, despite the trail being really wet (like knee-deep in mud in some places), all of the rivers marked on the map along this trail were surprisingly dry. Go figure. Why the hell not. It's not like we needed it to cook pasta or anything remotely important.

With sighs on the verge of being frustrated yawns, we added another section to our journey in our 'desperate' search for water. By the time we made camp, we had walked a total of 9.5 miles – a good few miles more than the 7 we had planned. On the plus side, though, that meant we only had 5.8 miles to walk tomorrow. On the downside, I hurt like hell and didn't want to do even that so to distract myself I attempted to make fire for the first time while Rob did all of the unpacking and later on, the cooking.

Long story short about the fire: I eventually got it going (yay!), but I also inhaled so much smoke my throat still hurts. Though I never could get it hot enough to boil water...not sure what I messed up there, but also not very surprised. Oh, well; there'll be a next time for that. (:

A map of Dolly Sods free campsites can be found at Free Designated Campsites in Dolly Sods.

Dolly Sods Part 1: A Good Time For Breakfast

5 November 2015 | Mri Grout

Another detour from my well thought out itinerary had us stopping in a 'southern Canadian-like ecosystem' called Dolly Sods. Ever since White Rocks Rob has wanted to go on a day hike and since we already bought a fairly expensive camping mat, I figured what the hell: it was as good as time as any to see if the mat held up to its reviews. SPOILER ALERT: it did – at least to an untrained camper anyway (ie: me).

I'd like to say that after this excursion I'm all caught up to speed and can thus be dubbed a 'real camper/hiker' from now on, but, well...things didn't exactly go very smoothly. Despite having researched the area about free dispersed camping, we had no actual idea of what trail conditions to expect, where to walk the next two days, and most importantly if there were or weren't any hungry bears in the area. Given that we hadn't seen any signs warning of possible contact, sturdy bear-proof rubbish bins, or pulleys in which to hang food and rubbish, we figured we'd be safe with dirty dishes right outside our tent. With our fingers crossed, we shrugged our shoulders and crawled into bed - where I promptly 'sneaked' onto the Rei Status air pad we'd gotten to Rob. Jeah, we'd bought it for him, but I figured if I was gonna die that night, I might as well be comfy.

~ * ~

Happy to say I didn't get mawed last night. Rob on the other hand...haha just kidding. He's fine - well, depending on your definition of fine that is. If alive = fine, then he's fine. If walking on a nice, clear path carrying a nicely weighed bag = fine, then he most definitely is not.

Being the gentleman that he is, he carried nearly four times as much weight as I did. He kept claiming that they were nearly the same, but I knew he was lying because there's no way I was going to carry his bag one mile, let alone the seven we planned on doing before lunch. After that, we figured we could just make camp there and thus have no need to carry two heavy bags full of food and camping gear. Or rather, that was the plan until we actually set off that morning.

Turns out, the sign wasn't lying when it said that the trails weren't for the inexperienced. It took us less than fifteen minutes to realize pitching and then leaving the tent behind with all of our gear while we went on another hike wasn't the best of ideas. Shucks, it wasn't even out of the 'don't be an idiot' ideas at this point. You see, the trails looked like this:

Dolly Sods overgrown trails...
Can you guess where we've just come from?

Oh no wait, we were just lost. After about an hour of bushwacking, we found out the real trail looks like this:

Dolly Sods trailOr maybe not because when we got to the first sign, of the two trails it had marked neither were pointing in the direction we just came from...

Oh well, we weren't lost now and would you look at that, we hadn't even missed our turn. Feeling good, we made our way down the proper path and came to a river actually marked on the map – a first so far. Feeling even better, we made our way to the water's edge, looked across for a way to pass, and found none. Refusing to be defeated so easily and so little into our trip, Rob made his way upstream in search of a usable crossing while I attempted to lug big rocks in form of a bridge.

However, despite our best efforts neither of us could find/make a dry way to cross with minimal risk of falling, so off came our boots and in we waded. Given that it was the beginning of November and we were about 3000 feet above sea level in the midst of a mountain range, one could easily guess how cold the water would be. Whatever you just guessed, triple it - it might as well have been water fresh off the glacier with icebergs still floating through it.

Having already felt how cold it was when I fished out the rocks to make a half-way there bridge, I opted to walk the first half by stone. Rob, however, thought they would be too slippery, but I ignored him and went my way anyway, all the time hoping I didn't slip and prove him right. Oh, how he'd get a laugh out of that. So once I got to the tricky part of my bridge, instead of risking the jump, I looked around for the least looking slippy rock and toed my way to it.

And very promptly slipped like a flailing moron.

Lifelong Vagabonds drying out after falling during river crossingThe camera was the first to go in, then my whole left side, and then the bag on my back. Luckily, however, the water was so cold that as soon as a just a little bit more of my leg felt the cold slosh as I started to fall, I was already scrambling for the rock Rob now stood atop of.

“Are you okay? Are you okay?” Rob asked frantically as I yelped like a dog kicked.

“No! NO! NO! NO! NO!” Was all I could repeat as I clambered onto the rock as fast as I could with the idea to just sit there until the water receded in a few months time. I didn't care at that point; I was NOT getting back in that water. I even quite seriously considered me dying of hypothermia, it was that cold. I would much rather do the Polar Bear challenge where you jump into a body of partially frozen water than wiggle one toe back into that river.

To put the temperature even more in perspective: it was only after I stopped shivering that I finally noticed the painful throbbing of my thumb. I must have whacked it on the rock I used to catch myself for half of the nail had cracked all the way through. I spat on it to wash the blood off, but when it just poured more out I gave up, instead moving my efforts to inspect my gear.

In conclusion: there's a good chance I'm going to lose ¼ of my thumbnail, a fair chance I'm going to lose all of it, but at least my camera still worked, the map wasn't too wet, my boots were still dry, and we finally decided on where to have breakfast.

A map of Dolly Sods free campsites can be found at Free Designated Campsites in Dolly Sods.

On the Prowl for Bald Eagles

2 November 2015 | Mri Grout

After figuring out that regardless of how many days you leave your car at a metro station in DC, you only ever have to pay for one day ($4.85 at Huntington Station + $2 required train card), we headed out in search of America's golden icon: the bald eagle.

About an hour's south of D.C., there is a forest that surrounds a marshland called Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge. The scenery itself is worth coming for, especially in the autumn. A few months down the line and the dying reeds and the drying up rivers would look desolate and empty. Now, however, the reeds look long and golden and the rivers – though small and shallow – meander through as if they're giving everything one last look before they sleep for the winter. Combined with the bright reds and oranges of the changing leaves and it truly is a paradise one can relax in while he/she enjoys the noises of nature.

Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge

But don't just lull off into sleep; keep those eyes open and if need be, use the binoculars supplied for this beautiful marshland is home to the great bald eagle - the only bird found exclusively in America. According to one of the information boards, the eagles are less bothered by gawking tourists from July - October when the juveniles feel invincible and thus aren't afraid of anything. However, I would think the best time for visiting would be November - December. Not just because that's when the natives are joined by migrating flocks of a wide variety of birds, including neighbouring eagles, but because that's also when the courtship and nesting begins.

Unfortunately, Rob and I didn't see any eagle dances, but we did see this:

Eagle on a post at Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge
Blurry eagle on a post at Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge

Yeah, I would seriously recommend going there to see them for yourself because they looked WAY cooler than in the photos here, even from afar. Either that or you can keep watching this space because I'm eventually going to do a proper search for wildlife one day and you can bet that bald eagles will be on top of that list.

Medicinal Pineapples, Retrograde Planets, and
Tree-Climbing Porcupines - All Found at the Smithsonian!

1 November 2015 | Mri Grout

People are lying when they say you only need a week to visit the Smithsonian. There are twelve different museums and galleries in D.C. alone with a further seven elsewhere around the world – and that's not even including its zoo and research facilities. So to cram every branch of it into a week would be chaos; we had five days in D.C. and only managed to visit the Natural History Museum, National Zoo, Air and Space Museum, and Udar-Hazy Center. To be fair, we'd taken time to visit the Holocaust Museum, Botanical Gardens & Museum, and some monuments, but that was only three hours tops. However, given the insane cost of staying in D.C. overnight, you'll probably never see it all, so here are some of the more interesting facts I learned:

  • The tentacle snake or Erpeton tentaculatum is an aquatic snake native to south east Asia. It's born in the water and has the ability to hold its breath for up to thirty minutes at a time. It moves in slow motion so as not to disrupt the water around it and as you can probably guess, it hunts by way of ambush – a technique we actually got to witness in the zoo's reptile house.
  • Pineapples grow on a what looks like a tuff of grass – albeit a 'giant' tuff of grass. They're supposedly very easy to grow and can be done indoors so if you wanted your own pineapple garden, click here. Their enzyme bromelain helps to reduce inflammation and blood clotting, aids digestion, and it interferes with the growth of tumors.
  • Cocoa is actually spelled 'cacao' – or it was until the westernised world got hold of it. That's like if we changed Toyota to Tayato just for the hell of it. Anyway, cacao beans taste nothing like the chocolate we get in a candy bar; to get that taste they have to undergo many operations with the last being a pressurization. This splits the bean into powder and butter – how crazy is that!? Then to get the chocolate taste we know and love, they have to put something like 20% of the butter back in. If you want to see what a real cacao bean tastes like, then eat a bit of cooking chocolate as they're the same thing with different forms.
  • The Voyager was the first aircraft to go around the world non-stop. They took a 'bizarre' looking path (ie: anything other than a straight line) due to weather conditions, wind direction, and geography. It took them nine days to fly 24,987 miles at 116mph. Given its aerodynamic shape, the two pilots had to lie down for the entire journey...no, I have no idea how they used the toilet and I don't know if I want to...
  • All of the planets in our solar system rotate the sun in a counter-clockwise circuit and thus, most of the planets rotate on their axis the same way. However, Venus and Uranus are the only two that do not; they rotate in a retrograde (ie: backwards, which in this case means clockwise).
  • American Airlines US Mail was the first plane to have stewardesses. In an attempt to get more women to fly it hired certified nurses as flight attendants. It was also the first plane to have toilets.
  • The Mars' rover's speed is a whopping 1cm/sec (or .39inches/second). That means the rover featured on The Big Bang Theory took thirty minutes to 'pitch' the ball.
  • Birds fly in a V-shape because it conserves more energy. The bird at the front of the V is actually pulling the others along side it due to an effect I don't really understand, but this is why you'll see them swap who's at the front every so often.
  • The New World Porcupine climbs TREES! They live in North and the northern part of Central America and should be easy to spot in the wild due to their black and white pattern of quills. As with the wolverine and skunk, the New World Porcupine actually WANTS to be seen by other animals because most will give them a wide berth once they realize what it is. They also have antibiotics in their skin for when they accidentally fall from a tree and embed themselves.
  • Anteaters carry their young on their back. I have no idea how they do that... I mean, they don't have hands. That's just crazy.
  • You 'weigh less' in an elevator if you're going down - for the first few seconds anyway. This is because of the increased upward force of the scale you're theoretically standing on. Normally, it would be equal and opposite to the downward force of gravity, but not when there's a sudden change in speed, so you'll 'weigh more' when you go up and 'weigh' less when you go down.
  • One of the major signs of an upcoming genocide is goatscaping (ie: unfairly blaming a group). Examples: The Jews, Christians, Muslims, people of colour, etc.

2015 USA: October