Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Healing Powers of Nature

It was a sunny Friday afternoon when I found myself standing in the middle of the sidewalk next to the Farmer's Market in tears calling my husband to tell him I couldn't breathe. "Do I need to come pick you up?" Me (sobbing): "No, I'll be okay, I've just got to put one foot in front of the other." I wasn't sure how I was going to walk the quarter mile back to my office, but somehow in a teary-eyed blur I made it. Trouble was brewing.

The following Monday morning I woke up, showered, dropped my son off at daycare, and took the elevator up to my office. I sat down and opened my email as I do every morning, and immediately burst into sobs. A kind coworker heard me and came over and patted me on the back and said "You're going to be okay", but I was definitely not okay. In fact, after I had dropped my son off at school earlier that morning, I secretly hoped I would get in a car accident. Not bad enough to kill me or damage my life forever, but to give me a legitimate reason to not have to open those emails for the next couple of months. I was completely overwhelmed, but in my mind I had no good reason for feeling blue.

When the sobs didn't stop over the next hour, I made the decision to get up and leave. I drove over to an emergency care clinic in East Nashville and walked in hanging my head, embarrassed of my red, flushed ugly cry-face. I told the receptionist I needed to see a doctor. "Sure, and why do you need to see the doctor today?", she asked.  I replied in a whisper, "I'm having a mental health crisis."

The next thing I know a nurse is whisking me off to a waiting room and chides me for not calling my primary care physician first. In my head I'm yelling back, "Can't you see I'm having a fucking meltdown?!" But instead, I made up some excuse as to why I didn't call my physician first and a few minutes later the nurse practitioner comes in with a prescription for Ativan and an appointment to see my primary care physician the next morning.

I show up the next day at the doctor's office and after explaining how I've felt over the past few months, I'm prescribed Abilify on top of Prozac and told to come back in two weeks. I ask her how I am going to go back to work in the meantime? She suggests quitting my job. Yes, because it's that easy. The last thing I need at this point is to lose my health insurance, but still, I toy with the idea for a couple of days. I could pull Ben out of daycare, we could sell one of our cars and stop going out to dinner. I could exclusively shop at thrift stores most definitely get rid of our monthly cleaning service. But then I remembered how depressed I was during my three month maternity leave, and I realized this is not the answer. Plus, I really like my job and feel like I'm helping to make the world a better place.

It's here that I say I'm incredibly blessed for my spouse, family, friends, and coworkers as they all support me and ultimately want to see me do what's best for me right now.  I'm still not sure what that is. You see, I've suffered from anxiety disorder and depression since I was a teenager and am smart enough to know it's not going to disappear over night.  I've largely managed it all these years through medication, counseling, exercise, and surrounding myself with amazing people. But I still act like it's this big, bad secret and probably don't tell enough people that I struggle with it on a daily basis.

The one thing I do know is that my silver bullet for anxiety/depression is nature.  Woods, sunshine, the sound of birds singing, and leaves rustling.  But how do I incorporate nature into my daily existence? I work downtown in a concrete jungle and come home in the evenings to your typical suburban, postage-stamp size lot.  On the weekends, I turn into an adventure warrior and drive out to Mother Nature to hike, kayak, or throw rocks in a creek with my son. But it's not enough. I need it everyday. Now don't get me wrong, I don't want to permanently go off the grid, but I do sometimes fantasize about a life without emails and phone calls.

So for now I'll keep hiking as much as I can in order to heal myself, and hope that this long-winded post about my struggles with depression and anxiety makes at least one person feel a little less lonely. And if you ever need a hiking buddy, call me.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Blue Ridge Parkway - North Carolina

The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469 mile road that runs from Virginia to North Carolina. The entire length of this road is a National Park and as such it's the country's longest linear park. All along the way there are various pull-offs and trails to enjoy beautiful views, walk to waterfalls, and hike up to the top of mountains for incredible vantage points. In this blog post we'll explore a few sites along the Parkway near Asheville, NC.

Devil's Courthouse

Sitting at an elevation of 5720, Devil's Courthouse is an impressive looking mountain that offers a commanding view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A relatively short (1/2 mile) and slightly strenuous trail leads to the rock-exposed top of the mountain. The mountain's look was thought to be sinister by some and local lore suggested that the devil himself may "hold court" deep inside the mountain. Unfortunately we could not confirm nor deny this rumor to be true.

From the top you can see four states. I'm leaning towards believing this claim to be true unlike the one made by those murderous gnomes at Rock City.

Rock City's infamous Murderous Evils (*probably not murderous)

The view is certainly impressive and on good visibility days you can see for miles. An interesting marker bolted to a rock points out some of the peaks visible nearby.

Looking Glass Rock

Another landmark along the Blue Ridge Parkway, near Asheville, is Looking Glass Rock. This 4,000 foot mountain is seen from several vantage spots along the parkway. From the Parkway, Looking Glass Rock looks like a rock climber's dream. On the other side there is a 3-mile (one-way) slightly less vertical hike up to the top. Also near here is Looking Glass Falls which looks absolutely beautiful and will definitely warrant a visit from us on our next trip to this area. For more information about Looking Glass Rock, check out this page.

Craggy Gardens

Taking the Blue Ridge Parkway northeast of Asheville brings us to Craggy Gardens. This area is known for exposed rock and wildflowers, particularly the rhododendron thickets that dominate many parts of the trail. We visited here in November, so the rhododendrons were not blooming but their empty thickets were impressive to walk through. I imagine the tunnel of rhododendrons would be impressive in the spring.

The cold day and slightly-threatening clouds made for an interesting trip to the top of this heath bald. There was no one else up here on this day, so the vacant hiking shelter and the total lack of other human beings made for a slightly creepy atmosphere.

There are also impressive views to be found up here. Craggy Gardens definitely stands out as a great place to stop to experience the varied landscapes and environments found along the Parkway.

Mt. Mitchell

When I was a kid I remember the shocking disappointment of learning that Clingman's Dome, the highest point in Tennessee in the Smoky Mountains, was NOT the tallest mountain in the Eastern United States. That title belongs to Mt. Mitchell, a peak found in the Black Mountains just northeast of Asheville. The mountain tops out at 6684 feet and it offers a panoramic view of the Pisgah National Forest and surrounding mountains from the observation tower on top.

Mt. Mitchell is the featured attraction of Mt. Mitchell State Park. In this park you'll find hiking trails, a gift shop, the all important restrooms and even a full service restaurant with nice views. Note: Because of the altitude it is always considerably cooler (or colder) up here than down in Asheville. The altitude also creates an alpine-like environment with the types of trees and plant life found here. There is no admission fee charged, so this is a free visit and well worth it. You can find out more about Mt. Mitchell State Park here.

Little Switzerland

Little Switzerland is located about map's center

Between Mt. Mitchell and Linville Falls, and just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, is the resort town of Little Switzerland, NC. This town is home to a wonderful place to grab something to eat called the Switzerland Cafe. They are noted for their barbecue and offer a full menu of great things to eat. It's definitely worth checking out if you find yourself there around a meal time.

Note: the cafe is only open "in season" meaning they close sometime in November and open back in in the Spring. Be sure to check out the site before planning to go there.

Linville Falls

Required viewing for anybody traveling along this part of the Blue Ridge Parkway is Linville Falls. The main falls drops over 90 feet in to the Linville Gorge and the main trail offers multiple vantage points of the falls. Before you even get to the overlooks for the main falls you get a nice view of the smaller, but still impressive Upper Falls.

The park is also filled with beautiful hardwood trees, so it's particularly beautiful in the fall. There are other trails that lead to different vantage points of the gorge and falls, plus there's access down in to the gorge itself and provides an up close view of the falls from the base.

Nearby you'll find Linville Caverns and Grandfather Mountain, both popular attractions offering different perspectives of the geography and geology of the area.

These are just a few of the many places to stop along the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. For more information about the Blue Ridge Parkway, you can check out their official site.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Top 10 Hikes in Chattanooga

View from a Lula Lakes Trail

RootsRated just put up a great list of some of the best hikes in the Chattanooga area. A couple of those hikes we can vouch for: Lula Lakes and the Cloudland Canyon West Rim Trail. The others look like must-dos and it's a reminder of just how much scenic beauty surrounds the Chattanooga area.

Cloudland Canyon

To check out the list, go here. To check out our report on touring Lula Lakes, go here.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Sewanee Natural Bridge and Grundy Lakes State Park

Sherwood, TN and the Cumberland Plateau

A beautiful fall day is a great opportunity to explore the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee. On this day we journeyed to the southern portion of the Plateau around the towns of Sewanee and Monteagle. The trees had yet to turn but the air was crisp and the skies were deep blue with nice fluffy clouds. Every direction you looked seemed like it would make for an awesome photograph.

Sewanee Natural Bridge

First stop was the Sewanee Natural Bridge which is located just south of Sewanee off State Route 56. There is a small parking area and a trail that descends down to the top of the bridge. The trail continues across the actual bridge and then descends further into a sinkhole. Note: While not particularly dangerous or strenuous, it is important to be careful as you cross the natural bridge and descend down in to the sinkhole.

The natural bridge is 25 feet high and spans almost 50 feet. A wet spring found here is believed to have slowly eroded away the sinkhole and formed the natural bridge. If you go under the bridge there is a short trail you can take to further observe nature's work with towering cliffs on one side and large boulders to scramble over or walk in between. Along the trail you can see limited views down in to Lost Cove which lies just below the natural bridge. Lost Cove is home to Buggytop Cave which has one of the most impressive cave entrances in the state. You can hike to Buggytop Cave by a trail that leaves the Carter State Natural Area just south of Sewanee Natural Bridge.

Found around the sinkhole are a number of carved signatures left by visitors long ago (some believed to have been left in the 1880s). According to an article on, a historian researched the names and did not find that they were locals, thus indicating the natural bridge probably served as a popular roadside attraction for a number of years. The natural bridge would have been a relatively short detour off of US 41A. The area does seem relatively free of modern vandalism.

Climbing out of the sinkhole

Sewanee Natural Bridge is part of a larger collection of parks called the South Cumberland Recreation Area. In this system you will find canyons, waterfalls, lakes and caves to explore. Savage Gulf is one part of this system and you can check out a post we made about it here. Grundy Lakes State Park is another part of this system which we also visited on this day.

Grundy Lakes State Park

Grundy Lakes State Park

Near Tracy City, TN, you will find Grundy Lakes State Park. The area was devastated by coal mining and in the late 1930s the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) transformed the land in to what you see today complete with lakes, trails and trees. Almost of all of the natural beauty present here is thanks to the efforts of the CCC.

There are a few hiking trails here including a nice loop around the lake. The park also offers access to the lake for swimming and fishing. The remains of coal mining past are still seen all over the park as well. The most visible reminders are the 100+ coke ovens found along a number of the trails in the park.

Coke Ovens

The coke ovens were used to convert coal in to industrial coke that could then be used as fuel for the smelting of iron ore. Note: The main trail tends to take you behind the coke ovens. The view from here is less impressive as the openings tend to be much smaller. In a few places it's possible to actually walk in front of the ovens to see them like in the picture above. Also, in many places you'll notice that the trail itself consists of coal. It makes for an interesting crunching sound as you walk over it.

Coal on the trail

The Cumberland Plateau, while utterly beautiful, has been mined and clear-cut so often over the years that it's amazing there's anything of beauty left. Places like Grundy Lakes State Park remind us that beauty can be reclaimed from manmade devastation.  In a future post we'll highlight a little bit more about some of the mining operations on the plateau.

Wonder Cave

Finally, we decided to drive US 41 north to head back to Nashville. Doing this means taking a windy descent off the plateau. The road is particularly steep indicating the road was built before the more modern, and less steep, standards of today. At the foot of the plateau you'll find the old sign for Wonder Cave, a once popular tourist attraction that suffered with the advent of the interstate system.

Wonder Cave Entrance Building

A few years ago Jessica wrote a little post about Wonder Cave and we decided to take a quick swing by the old building. The place is locked up so you can't explore the property nor see the cave, but it was good to finally see the grounds in person. For years I have heard of Wonder Cave and while I've always had a deep fascination with caves, Wonder Cave is the only modern Tennessee commercial cave that I never got to visit. It would be great to one day explore the cave if it ever were to open back up.

South Cumberland State Recreation Area map

For more information about the South Cumberland State Park, including Sewanee Natural Bridge and Grundy Lakes State Park, check out their page here.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Nevada Ghost Towns

Matador Network / Photo: mtneer_man

Here at Southern Wanderings we'll sometimes cover places that are outside of the Southeastern United States. Ghost towns are one of those subjects and whenever we can find a link to a cool article or photos of such places we'll give it to you here.

Over at Matador Network they have a great photo trip through some Nevada ghost towns.  Nevada was a state that had thousands of mines and many of these mines had small towns that sprang up (almost overnight) to support the mines. Once these mines stopped operating, most of these towns became ghost towns literally overnight. The article starts off with a great fact (I'm assuming it's true since they used all capital letters for FACT):
FACT: There are more ghost towns in Nevada than towns occupied by the living. By that count, it would take you years, if not a lifetime, to explore all the ghost towns in the state.
Regardless of whether or not that's true there are a TON of ghost towns in Nevada and way too many to explore in a reasonable period of time. So Matador Network takes us through 6 of them with some cool photos and a little bit of text about each of these places.

Photo: TravelNevada

To check out this article, click this link.

About the first picture above - it's from Rhyolite, NV and it shows a creepy art exhibit created by Belgian sculptor Albert Szukalski in the 1980s. Seeing this would certainly make me think twice about exploring this ghost town.

Ghost Town Under the Lake

Credit: University of Nevada, Las Vegas University Libraries

Finally, another ghost town in Nevada, St. Thomas, has spent most of the last 70+ years under the waters of Lake Mead. Over the years the lake has dropped just enough to reveal the town. With the current extreme drought hitting the Southwest, this has happened once again. You can now tour this once thriving Mormon community by a new access trail built by the NPS. For more information, you can check out the National Park Service's page here.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Road to Nowhere

The Road to Nowhere

On the eastern side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, near the town of Bryson, NC, lies Lakeview Drive. The road winds its way through a section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the northern shore of Fontana Lake. Eventually the road reaches a 1/4 of a mile long tunnel through a mountainside and then, just on the other side, the pavement stops. Lakeview Drive ultimately inherited the nickname "The Road to Nowhere" as a result.

The road was not intended to stop just beyond the tunnel. It wouldn't make sense to spend a great deal of money and manpower to build a road through the mountain only to have it stop on the other side, but that's exactly what ended up happening. So what happened here?

Lakeview Drive aka "The Road to Nowhere" ends at the Lakeshore Trail Trailhead

During World War II, the US Government and the Tennessee Valley Authority decided to dam up the Little Tennessee River for power generation. As the river descends out of the mountains, multiple little lakes were formed. Cool tip: one of these dams, Cheoah Dam near Deal's Gap, was used in the movie "The Fugitive". Harrison Ford takes a perilous leap off of this dam and magically survives.

"The Fugitive" - Little Tennessee River and the road to Deal's Gap seen in the background

Closer to Bryson City a more significant lake was formed called Fontana Lake. The valley the lake would flood was home to many residents of Swain County. The government bought some of this land, but it also took large swaths of private property forcing the residents to move out of the valley. The US government promised to replace the road that once ran through the valley with Lakeview Drive. This new road would serve one very important purpose for the local people of Swain County and that was to have access to cemeteries where their loved ones were buried.

Pavement is slowly deteriorating

Almost 6 miles of road were built, including a bridge and the tunnel, but the remaining distance (approximately 26 miles) were never built because of environmental issues that sprang up. In the end, a promise was broken and the Swain County residents would not have access to their ancestral cemeteries. The road became a huge sore spot to the people of Swain County and Bryson City. This sentiment is perfectly spelled out on a sign you'll see as you leave Bryson City - "Welcome to The Road To Nowhere, A Broken Promise!". It should be noted that the National Park Service does offer periodic ferry services across the lake to take families to these cemeteries. In 2000 there was a bill that funded the continuation of the road, but to do this date, no further construction has occurred.

Today, The Road to Nowhere serves as access in to the Smoky Mountains and a number of trails in the area can be found here. There are a few scenic overlooks that offers the usual views of hazy mountains, but with the added element of water down below in Fontana Lake. The tunnel itself is worth checking out and the drivable portion of Lakeshore Drive ends just before the tunnel. There's a large parking lot to accommodate the visitors to the tunnel. Throughout the tunnel you will find graffiti that visitors have left. This is another sore spot for Swain County and they are making attempts to work with the National Park Service to clean this up.

Looking out of the tunnel towards the terminus of Lakeview Drive

Bryson City is an interesting town worth visiting. There are some good restaurants to eat at (Everett St. Diner was very good) and it's also home to the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad that offers rail excursions down through the Nantahala Gorge. Bryson City also provides access to another section of the national park called Deep Creek. This area offers a few waterfalls and some nice hiking trails. You're also not all that far from the Nantahala Gorge which we highlighted in this post. Many visitors to the gorge stay in Bryson City since there are a limited number of options to stay in the gorge.

Tom Branch Falls found in Deep Creek

To Get There

You can access Lakeshore Drive from Bryson City, NC in Southwestern North Carolina. The road starts in town as Fontana Road. For more information about The Road To Nowhere and nearby Bryson City, check out this page.

Map of Southwestern North Carolina

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Stunning Video of Fall in the Smokies

I've mentioned it before, but experiencing the Smokies in the fall is stunning. Photos barely do it justice. But this video does.  The use of time-lapse photography only adds to the amazing beauty presented here. 

The video comes from MTJP and they also have shot similar videos at many other national parks. They're all worth checking out.  To view this on Vimeo and to find links to their other national park videos, click here.