Sunday, May 24, 2015

Hiking, Biking and Trail Angels

I don't normally plan to go camping during the big holiday weekends because the campgrounds are usually so full and it's hard to find a place to go, but I'd packed the RV to go camping last weekend and then the RV was at the dealer all weekend and now I wanted to test out the new turbo thingy. So Saturday morning I tossed the remaining items I'd need into the RV and headed out! I made a quick stop at Wegmans in Gainsville then drove out 29 to Warrenton to 211 to make the big climb into the park!
I suspect my turbo thing had been malfunctioning for some time because I noticed a huge difference in how she accelerated and handled hills! The service writer told me the RV would take off like a rocket and he wasn't kidding! WOW! Going up 211 into the park the speed limit was 35, I caught myself going 45-50 a few times and almost took a few of the curves way to fast! It was as if I had to hold her back! The "extra" power was also noticeable when I had to pass bikers on Skyline Drive!
I'm working on hiking the AT in the park and I left off at Simmon's Gap in the South District. I'd realized that with Skyline Drive I could potentially do a one way hike and then ride my bike back to the car. I'd decided it would be even better if I could figure out how to bike the direction that was more downhill than uphill.
When I arrived at Simmon's Gap I kept driving to Pinefield Gap where the AT crossed Skyline Drive. It was only two miles, but it would be all downhill from Pinefield Gap back to Simmon's Gap. So after driving past and going up to Ivy Creek Overlook to turn around I pulled into Pinefield Gap parking area (there was a NPS work truck parked there and I almost got stuck!) and locked my bike & helmet to a tree, then headed back to Simmon's Gap.
I wasn't far from Simmon's Gap when I encountered a PATC Ridgerunner assisting some hikers and when she turned to look at me I realized I knew her! It was Blissful! Blissful thru-hiked a few years ago and I'd followed her on, she also wrote a book about her hiking experience, which I read, and she's the moderator of the Shenandoah Hikers group on Facebook! It was like meeting a trail celebrity! She recognized me too and since we were heading in the same direction we hiked off together, quickly meeting up with her husband, Papa Bliss. We continued down the trail chatting and meeting Thru-hikers (there were 30 hikers at Blackrock shelter Friday night!).
They'd seen my bike at Pinefield Gap and I told them of my plan to ride back to Simmon's Gap. Papa Bliss frequently does the same thing when he is out supporting Blissful in her Ridgerunning so he knew something I hadn't figured's all downhill from Ivy Creek overlook to Simmon's Gap. Hiking on to Ivy Creek would give me a 3.7 mile hike, which was better than the 2 miles I'd worked out. Papa Bliss offered to shuttle my bike to Ivy Creek for me so I could keep hiking! WOW! I thought this sounded like a perfect idea so I took him up on it!
At Pinefield Gap Papa Bliss and I got my bike loaded in his car and I told him the lock combo and he was off to Ivy Creek while I headed back down the trail. I was able to catch up with Blissful before she reached the turn off for the shelter and we were able to grab a selfie.

Blissful headed down to the shelter and I kept hiking up, up, up, toward Ivy Creek! The rest of the hike was a nice stroll in the woods, it was all up, which was nice since I'd rather hike up than down! I saw few other people except Thru-hikers! Soon I was at Ivy Creek and there was my bike locked securely to a tree visible from the trail! I unlocked it and walked it out into the overlook. After a quick snack I was heading down!
This was the best part! I'd hiked up and now I was flying down! It was almost as good as a zip line! I was totally sold on this idea of using my bike to help me do one way hikes! This was awesome! True to prediction, there was only one small section of uphill on the way back, most of the trip back I was flying down the drive! It had taken me 2 hours and 15 minutes to hike the 4 miles to Ivy Creek, it took me 15 minutes to ride back to Simmon's Gap!
As soon as I was back at the van I began plotting my next section! I saw that the section from Ivy Creek to Loft Mountain was about 4 AT miles as well, so I headed out to see which direction had the most downhill on Skyline Drive. It looked best to leave the bike at Ivy Creek again and walk from Loft Mountain. I figured I had enough daylight to accomplish this today, however, I was going to be hiking during dinner time. No problem, I'd just eat an early dinner! I drove up to Ivy Creek and turned the generator on and heated up a frozen meal, even though it was only 4:30! After dinner I locked the bike to a tree and drove back to Loft Mountain Wayside.
I headed up the Fraizer Discovery Trail until it joined the AT then hiked north on the AT. This was an especially nice section of the AT. First the trail wound through some old fields and the trail was bordered by bluets on both sides.

Then the trail descended to a stream - Ivy Creek - I think the may be the only, or one of a few places in the park where the AT follows a stream! There was one stream crossing with a nice view of a little cascade. I of course got my feet wet trying to get a picture!

After the stream crossing it was a long slog uphill to a view...

I liked hiking in the evening, the light was softer! This isn't a time when I'm normally hiking, I'm usually trying to get home by the time evening rolls around or I'm back in my campsite. Anyway, after this viewpoint the trail wound around up and down, down and up, before finally coming out at Ivy Creek overlook.
It was only 6:15! I'd expected it to be closer to 7 by the time I got back to my bike, so even through the hike seemed long, I'd done it quickly! I was hot and sweaty from the long slog uphill so riding downhill was a great way to cool off! This section had some uphill at the end though and by the time I got back to the van I was hot and sweaty, but I was at the Loft Mountain Wayside a purveyor of Blackberry Milkshakes! Lucky for me that I got done earlier than I'd planned...the wayside & snack bar closed at 7:00 and it was now close to 6:45! I was just in time to score a blackberry shake to top of the day!
After enjoying my shake I made my way back down Skyline Drive. All the campgrounds were full, as I'd expected, and I'd decided that I'd just enjoy every minute of the day and then head to the Wal-Mart in Ruckersville - intersection of US 33 & US 29 - for the night since I'd get home really late. Enjoying every minute of the day included the sunset! I decided Swift Run Overlook was the place for the sunset - it was the closest overlook to the park exit, which meant I wouldn't have to drive much of Skyline Drive in the dark.
I arrived at the overlook about 7:30, sunset wasn't until 8:25. I settled in to read until it was time. As soon as I picked up my kindle it started informing me that it's battery was dead. Such a 21st century problem...I can't read because I forgot to charge my book. I usually keep a Kindle charger in the van, but somehow it wasn't there. Glad I was going to Wal-Mart! So I decided to take a shower instead. I was too impatient to wait for the hot water heater to finish heating so it was lukewarm, but it was nice, until I realized that I'd forgotten my towel. All the towels were at home - the dish towels, my bandanas, the bath towel...luckily I had a chamois, like the ones Olympic swimmers use! Once I'd dried off and gotten into my pjs the sun was low enough to start taking pictures so I headed out of the van. Standing on the wall snapping pictures of the setting sun, I discovered that I had enough signal to download my book to my phone! So in between pictures I was reading!
It was one of the best Shenandoah sunsets I've ever seen! Usually clouds roll in at the last minute! Not tonight!
As soon as the sun was gone I headed down the mountain! Most nights I'm in bed by 8 so I was fading fast, especially after hiking & biking all day! I arrived at Wal-Mart and there were no other RVs! I didn't want to ask permission, I was afraid I'd be told no and I didn't have other options! I did run into the store and found a charger cord for my kindle so I could read (I like reading on my kindle better than on my phone!) and then hunkered down in my RV. said overnight parking was permitted at that store so I figured that was good enough. You are supposed to ask permission, but oh well.
It was actually a pretty quiet night! The parking lot Zamboni came through around 1:30, but that was it! I was tucked away in a far corner away from the traffic lanes so that helped! This morning I was up by 6 and read for awhile before driving home. I didn't even get dressed before I headed out! It only took 2 hours to get home!
It was a great day in the park! I only wish I'd made a reservation so I could have stayed in a campground instead of Wal-Mart, but thanks to my bike I was able to cover almost 7 miles of AT and I've now hiked from VA7 (Bear's Den Hostel) to Brown's Gap in SNP. I have about 40 miles left to have covered from I64 to Harper's Ferry!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Mechanical Moment: The Turbo "Thingy"

*I have a 2011 Sprinter Van, converted to an RV by Pleasure-Way.

I'm writing this for anyone else who might encounter a similar problem with their Sprinter Van, I believe this is a rare problem so who knows if anyone else will encounter this.

Last July, on the first full driving day of my summer trip, I was under three miles from my destination when the van lost power! I was in a residential area, on a busy road, traveling about 30-40 mph trying to get up a fairly steep p, but short, hill. Without warning, without any indicator lights illuminating, the van simply stopped moving and the RPMs dropped suddenly. I attempted to give the van more fuel but pressing the accelerator but it did nothing. I was able to get the hazard lights on and I coasted, slowly, but still moving forward, to the top of the hill. Once I began to descend the van shifted gears and began to gain speed. All was ok until I hit the next hill - a more gradual climb, this time I was on a more deserted street almost to my uncle's house. I was able to pull into his driveway where I pulled out the unhelpful owner's manual.

Soon, my parents got back and I began describing the problem to my dad. He and I took the van out for a test drive. At first, it seemed that there was no problem, it went up several hills and didn't lose power at all. But then, just as we were returning to my uncle's thinking it was just one of those weird things, it happened again. This time the Check Engine Light (CEL) came on. We decided that "turning it off/back on again" had possibly reset things and was why we were able to drive around without it losing power, so we tried that. It did work to restore power, but the CEL was still on.

The next morning I drove over to Mercedes of Ft. Washington. The technician was confused by the codes the CEL was giving him, he said that it indicated that the turbo needed to be replaced, he was hesitant to get on board with that because it was a rare problem and the repair would take days and I was living in my van, so this was going to be a problem. He took it for a "restorative test drive" and cleared the codes. He also wrote up a detailed report with what codes had come up and what he had done in case this happened again, I could give that to the next Mercedes Dealer so they'd know. I tossed the paper in my glove box and headed out with fingers crossed.

I drove about 5,000 miles - all types of driving conditions - highway, country roads, mountains, steep inclines, long gentle inclines, long driving days, short driving days, - without having another obvious problem. Then, on the 2nd evening of my spring break trip I was heading up a long steepish hill on Little River Road in Great Smoky Mt. National Park when suddenly the van lost power again. It was exactly what had happened back in PA. This time I tried shifting into a lower gear to try and get the engine to change and snap out of whatever was causing it to stick, but that didn't really work. I was able to coast into an overlook where I turned the van off and back on again. That seemed to cure the problem and didn't happen again, despite me giving it lots of chances too! This time the CEL did not come on. I drove over 500 miles - even took it up to a trailhead with a hill so steep I had to put it in first gear to get down! I suspect that there may have been some "glitches" or minor "seizures" with the RPMs, but the van did not dramatically lose power again.

Last Thursday I took the van in to my usual Mercedes dealer - Meredes of Chantilly, here in VA, for its 30k miles service. I was about 4k miles early, but I have plans to drive it to Oregon next month so I wanted to be sure everything was working! I'll probably be putting 10k miles on it and I'd rather get the service early than late! When I dropped the van off I casually mentioned the to kid the problem with it losing power. He, and I, were skeptical that they'd be able to find the problem, but I asked them to look and agreed to the $130 diagnostic fee. I forgot to tell him about my note from the Ft. Washington Mercedes guys, but I did tell him that my visit to the other Mercedes dealer was probably in the computer.

I was shuttled to school and went about my day. It was at 4:00, when I was trying to get I touch with the Mercedes people to come get me, that I got the call from the Service Writer...the turbo needed to be replaced, it was covered by warranty, and the van would be ready Monday! WHAT?!?!

Now, this did not come as a surprise, I fully expected we might be looking at replacing the turbo, the problem was the van was my only transportation home (I live 30 miles from the Mercedes Dealer! It's close to my work, but not my house) and my friend who could have driven me home had already left! I explained this to Joe and he quickly understood and rather than giving me the van back and waiting for me to arrange my own transportation so I could leave the van with them for a few days, he gave me a loaner car! NICE! They don't usually give loaners for Sprinters, but this was an unusual situation!

Joe did say that potentially, the other 2 random CEL incidents I've had could be related to the turbo. That would be really nice...if this was the answer to all the weird stuff the van has done!

I got the call today, Mon, that they had finished the repair, they were test driving it and I could pick it up Tuesday morning! I'll be going to school and then going to the Mercedes Dealer to pick it up!

This was truly the best case scenario for getting this problem fixed! I'd much rather deal with this here than in the middle of Iowa! I'm so glad that I will have the van in perfect working order for my trip to Oregon!


Friday, April 3, 2015

Wal-Mart and Home

It was a busy night at the Wytheville Wal-Mart! Remember I didn't want to stay at the Marion Wal-Mart because of the partying teenagers? Well, the Wytheville Wal-Mart has an even larger group of young people who loiter and make noise. There were about 6 trucks, none of which had a muffler, most of which were growlers, 20 or so kids, talking, revving engines, playing what I'm sure is a fun "honk the horn" game, all just a few feet from my bed. It was around 10 when I decided I didn't have to put up with this, I could go somewhere else. So I did. I was considering the Cracker Barrel, but they were closed at that point and I did to know if it was legal. I saw another RV on the other side of the parking lot so I drove over there. As soon as I got near the other RV, they drove off and ended up parking right where I'd just left? I hope they had better luck over there!

Settled into my new spot, I decided to read another chapter to get ready to go back to sleep. A few pages into my chapter, the LP/CO detector went off. Lovely. It hadn't gone off yet this trip and it was running out of time. I wasn't running anything - other than the fridge (which is having it's own issues), and the LP/CO detector has false alarmed randomly so many times, so I was 99% sure this was nothing. I opened the door and let fresh air in, just in case, the alarm took it's sweet time shutting off. I also shut the fridge off. Out of an abundance of caution I did open the vent & turn on the fan and I opened the windows right by my head to keep the fresh air circulating. The next challenge was trying to get to sleep after, worrying about whether it was going to go off again. Had I gone to the Cracker Barrel I probably would have been sound asleep by this time and alarm would have woken me up, which is worse than it going off randomly when I'm just sitting there.

I was just about asleep when a semi came in. Pulled in right behind me. And idled his engine. For a long time. Opening the window also increased the traffic noise. Finally I did fall asleep, I didn't sleep well, but it ended up not being the worst Wal-Mart night, that distinction belongs to the Allentown, PA Wal-Mart on the hottest night ever in July 2012.

I was slow to get moving today, I read my book, got a shower, and moseyed back to the highway! The trip home was uneventful, just set the cruise and drove! I love I-81! It was supposed to rain all day but it didn't start until I was on 66!

I made it home at 3:00, with no further issues from the van! Still have no idea what caused that, but it seems to have been a one time event!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Virginia Creeper Trail: Part 2

Cracker Barrel might be my new "go to" overnight spot, at least the one in Abingdon! So quiet! This morning wasn't as cold so despite not having a picnic table to sit at, I did still get a leisurely breakfast with my book! It was nice to slow down and not feel rushed and pressured to get out to the trails before all the other people got there! I was still at the trail head at 9:30!

Last Spring Break Dad and I camped near Damascus and biked the Virginia Creeper Trail starting in Damascus and going up to the end of the trail at Whitetop Station. Today's plan was to start in Abingdon, at the "beginning" and ride to Damascus, which is the halfway point. It was 16 miles one way for a 32 mile ride.

From Damascus to Whitetop the trail climbs continuously - it's 1600 feet of elevation change over 17 miles. It's a great downhill ride, and it's a tough uphill climb! Last year Dad and I rode up, and then back down, most people get a shuttle from Damascus and only ride down! The trail from Abingdon to Damascus is more rolling, it actually gives the appearance of being flat, but it's not. It's more subtle elevation change! The 16 miles from Abingdon to Damascus is much easier than Damascus to Whitetop, but it's not as scenic.

The trail from Abingdon starts out going through neighborhoods, but quickly you are in the woods! The trail follows a river, not sure which one, I think it changed rivers several times! Then the woods thin out and there are farms and cows! Then it's back in the woods with the river on the side, this river is a deep, wide, slow moving river, very different from the creek that runs alongside the trail up the mountain. One interesting point along the trail was Trestle 7, about mile 6 or 7. The trestle is out in the middle of a rolling farm and the trestle was destroyed when a tornado ripped through in 2011. You can still see the damage to the trees on several hills near the trestle. They rebuilt the trestle and just reopened it last April. There is also a rest area & cafe about halfway - Alvarado Station. I didn't take many pictures, my phone was buried in my backpack!

The last three miles into Damascus the trail follows US58 and it's not as scenic. It's also going uphill, slightly, but enough that you feel it, and this was where the wind started whipping. Heading into the wind, uphill, wasn't too fun, but I made it to Damascus!

Damascus is a great little town! In addition to the Creeper Trail the AT runs right through Damascus! In fact there are two spots where the AT and The Creeper are together! The town is filled with hikers and bikers and services! When I first rode into town I arrived at the town park by the caboose. I pulled up to a picnic table and had a snack. It was sunny and warm and only 11:15. I wasn't ready to turn back. I considered getting a ride on the next shuttle to the top and riding down, but I'd still have to ride back to Abingdon and that seemed like it would be too much. (It did later occur to me that I could have gotten a shuttle back to Abingdon!) There was a map of the trail that I was studying and it occurred to me that I should ride up a little ways, if I rode up to mile marker 20, that would give me a 40 mile ride! I'd never done a 40 mile ride, no time like today right? Life is too short!

After a snack I headed out of Damascus, up the trail. It was only 4 miles, and it wasn't even the steep part of the uphill, but it was tough! Riding down though was fun and I was kinda regretting not just getting a shuttle to the top. The creek & the rhodendron really reminded me of Little River Road in the Smokies. When I was driving that road I was wishing I could bike it, now in know I don't have to go all the way to Tennessse, I can just ride the Creeper Trail. And, as a bonus, there were no people on the Creeper Trail! None. Beautiful sunny day and I barely saw anyone! I guess they are all fighting for parking spots at Clingman's Dome!

After my 8 mile up and I back I was ready for some ice cream! I'd wanted a milkshake from The Dairy King, but I didn't see the Dairy King, it wasn't where I thought it was, but I found another ice cream place! They were out of milk for a milkshake but they had peanut butter cup! Good enough!
After my ice cream I went to check out Mount Rogers Outfitters and then got back on the trail heading back to Abindon. This was when 40 miles started to seem like not so great of an idea. Remember, I've barely ridden my bike all winter and first opportunity I try and set a personal best! Well, I had no choice but to keep riding! My thighs and my butt hurt! I ended up taking lots of breaks and doing lots of yoga stretching by the side of the trail. When I was riding into the wind coming into Damascus I was thinking I'd get to go with the wind on the way back. Yeah, not so much. Wind must have shifted. It was gusty and when I was in the woods I was sheltered so it wasn't as bad as it could have been, but it was still annoying.

Finally, after several rest stops over the last 5 miles, I arrived back at Trestle 1 and the parking lot! I was so happy to see my van! I had some more snacks, changed clothes and started thinking about where I was going to sleep tonight!  I am really happy that this worked out the way it did! When I first started thinking about Spring Break I knew I wanted to ride my bike, I'd wanted to do a portion of the Greenbriar River Trail in West Virginia, but with no open campgrounds I couldn't.  I almost didn't even bring my bike to the Smokies because there are so few places to ride!  I'm so glad I did!

I'd thought I'd go to a Hungry Mother State Park, I figured I could camp tonight and explore in the morning. When I got there, after coming down a huge hill (remember, the van may or may not be having a problem with going up hills), I discovered that the campground wasn't really in the park. There was nothing to do right by the campground and getting to where the trails were involved more big hills for the RV. It was also $30 a night. I knew I'd worry about whether the RV would make the hill all night so I opted to find another place to stay.

There was a WalMart in Marion, Dad and I stayed there last year, but there were some teenagers hanging around that night and I wasn't sure I wanted to stay there on my own. I'd seen a billboard for a Cracker Barrel at Wytheville which was 20 miles up the road so I headed there. I didn't see the Cracker Barrel (I'd gotten off at the wrong exit), but there was a WalMart. There was another RV, a big class A, settled in - slides out, jack stands down, so I figured they were staying so I pulled in behind them. Other than taking my trash to the trash can I didn't even go in WalMart. It did strike me as very funny that I was bringing my trash into Walmart - usually it's the other way around!

I like staying in campgrounds because I sleep better, but I feel like I have a more relaxing evening when I'm at WalMart (or other non-campground). When I'm in a campground I always want to go see stuff, take a walk, take a hike, see the place, but in a parking lot there's nothing to see so I sit, read a book, write my blog, check email!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Rainbow Falls

I didn't get busted by the Rangers for camping illegally! I did decide that I would head out as soon as I was up and have breakfast at Metcalf Bottoms - no campsite means no picnic table and I wanted to try again to read and eat breakfast! It wasn't as cold this morning so I thought it would work! Also, I was paranoid about the RV and how she would run, I wanted to test it out as soon as I could.

It was pretty much all downhill to Metcalf Bottoms and the RV was fine! I got there and made coffee, put on my long underwear and gloves and sat down at a picnic table by the river and had a lovely breakfast! I still wasn't able to finish my book, but it was nice to read some of it! After breakfast I got dressed and did the dishes and was ready for the day! At 9:30 I headed out to Gatlinburg - heading to Rainbow Falls, but still worried about the van making it.

The van had no trouble at all getting to Gatlinburg so I ventured out Cherokee Orchard Road to the Rainbow Falls trailhead. This road was very steep and narrow. It was quite the test of whatever is wrong with the van. If I'd known how steep it was I never would have drived up there. But, the van made it, without an issue. It was 10:00 and already most spots were full, I actually got the last good spot for a large vehicle. There was a wide spot in the road and I pulled right in.

The hike to Rainbow Falls was about 5.5 miles round trip - all up going to the falls, all down coming back. It's a very popular hike so the trail was well worn and there were a lot of people, although fewer people than many of the other popular hikes because it's more strenuous! It's obvious why this is a popular hike! The trail mostly follows the rhodedenron lined river and there are lots of views of cascades and small falls. As we climbed higher there were views of the mountains and Gatlinburg!

I was almost to the falls and there was a stream crossing with a waterfall, I thought maybe that was IT, but it was kinda small and I couldn't believe thousands of people would hike up to see that, so I asked a guy nearby and he said that Rainbow Falls had a sign! We dubbed this falls "Close Enough Falls" for folks who were done hiking and wanted to turn back!



Soon , I got to Rainbow was huge! I didn't feel like climbing over the rocks to get closer!

I still wasn't sure what I was doing with the rest of the day, the rest of the trip. I figured I could go back to Elkmont or Cades Cove mid-afternoon and score a site, but there was the issue of the van and how long would she cooperate? There were several commercial campgrounds I could go to, but I'd be paying $40 or more to stay there and there wasn't much else I could do in the park, I hadn't planned out what I was doing tomorrow and with the van maybe going to conk out on me on a big hill, I really didn't want to drive back up into the mountains to get to the trail heads. Hanging out in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge was not appealing. While I was hiking I made a plan to drive to Abingdon, VA and stay the Cracker Barrel , then tomorrow I can ride the other half of the Virgnina Creeper trail! The start of the trail is right by the highway! And as long as I stay close to 81, I'll have cell signal in case I need to call roadside assistance! Perfect!

I do need to give a big shout out to the three, THREE, people who parked behind me at Rainbow Falls! All three of them parked in a way that left me plenty of room to back up, should I need it, to get out! One fear of mine driving my big van up to a trail head like that is that I will get parked in, these three folks not only didn't park me in, but parked in a way that allowed three cars in the space that might have been taken up by 1 car in another setting! Excellent parking! :-)

After my hike I was trying to navigate through Gatlinburg and I made a wrong turn, but I learned a way to get to a different area of the park without running the tourist trap gauntlet - might be a possiblity for next time! On my detour I found a Food City I could get into so I pulled in & got some lunch and double checked the weather in Abingdon to see if my plan was going to work - it looked good!

Also at Food City, I picked up some bottled water. Turns out un-winterizing my van takes 2/3 of my tank of fresh water?!?? Not sure what happened because the tank was full when I left home! I know 6 of the 30 gallons went into the hot water heater, there's no leak because the water pump would be running. I guess it just needed that much to charge the lines and stuff. Anyway, I was going to put more water in at Cades Cove, but it was cold & I'd have to take the bike off to get the hose out (I suspect my rear tire issues were because of trying to open the van doors without taking the bike off so I'm not doing it anymore), then it was late when I got back, then I was trying to get out of there quick & it was cold again & the bike. I figured I'd be going somewhere with water. Well, Cracker Barrel doesn't have water. So I bought 3 gallons for drinking, coffee & flushing if I need it to conserve what's in the tank for washing & showers. I'm going to drain it when I get home in case it gets cold again so I'd rather not have it full.

It took almost an hour to go the 15 miles from Gatlinburg to I40. That 15 miles is like Redneck Vegas. I don't think there is any other National Park that you have to pass through such an eyesore to get to it. It's really very sad because the park is beautiful! Similar to, but totally different from Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge. The smokies are more rugged and there's more water so it's greener and mossier and has better creeks!

It was 100 miles to Abingdon and Roxy was just fine! She got right up to speed on the interstate and we cruised right along. A few times I thought maybe she was going to lose power, but I think I was being paranoid. I got to Abingdon a little after 5, I didn't want to go right to the Cracker Barrel because I wouldn't have enough to do, so I got fuel and located the trail head (more steep up hills for Roxy...she did fine!), that took until about 6, so I went & parked up at Cracker Barrel.

I went in to check with a manager about spending the night and he was so nice! I knew I should buy something or eat...I decided to eat dinner, I have a ton of food in the van, but sitting at a table was appealing! After dinner I discovered the rocking chairs on the porch, I could sit there and finish my book! I'd wanted to sit outside because it was so nice and I didn't want to open the windows in the van because it was going to let the heat out, if I keep it closed up it stays warmer in here at night!

After I finished my book I curled up in the van and wrote my blog, checked in on Facebook, texted! It was nice to be "home" early!



Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Clingman's Dome & Siler Bald Hike

Today was mostly magnificent! There was a lot of adventure, but mostly today was a spectacular day!

It was a chilly frosty morning, it was actually 10 degrees warmer in my RV than it was outside! When I opened the door I could see my breath, but I couldn't inside! My attempts to read while I drank my coffee failed, it was so cold my fingers were frozen and with gloves on I couldn't turn the pages!

I'd wanted to catch a Ranger before I left for the day, last night when I'd self registered I didn't have cash (or my checkbook, not sure why my checkbook wasn't in my purse...) and so rather than totally fail to pay for my site I put my credit card number and explained that I'd bring cash when I returned tonight. I wanted to talk to a Ranger about this, but no one was around. I decided to just head out for the day and hope for the best.

My first stop, after a mildly terrifying trip down Little River Road where a NPS fire brigade trailer almost hit me and I almost ran into the rocks trying to avoid him, was Sugarlands Visitor Center. I was looking for an ATM, but they didn't have one so I got my stickers and headed into Gatlinburg in search of an ATM. I ended up in Pigeon Forge, but I had cash and headed back to the park - this time by way of the bypass, which was nice! Gatlinburg isn't so bad, it's more old school tacky and has some character!

I headed up Newfound Gap road to Clingman's Dome! Clingman's Dome is the highest point on the AT and there's an observation tower at the top. I don't think I'd ever been there when it wasn't ensconced in fog! Today it was bright and sunny with not a cloud in the sky!

I was a bit worried about parking, I was sure there would be a lot of people up there, so I was thrilled when I arrived at 11:15 to find a quarter of the parking lot empty! I pulled right into a parallel parking spot and it was oversize so Roxy fit no problem! In the 30 minutes it took me to eat some lunch and pack up the place turned into a zoo! All the parking was filled and people were circling! Great timing! Since I had the RV I had a bathroom so I was able to bypass the long lines at the outhouses too!

I first walked up to the observation tower - it's 1/2 a mile straight up, on a paved trail. The trail is in better shape than some of the roads. Except for one spot, where there was a large sheet of black ice. Which I didn't see because I was checking email on my phone (yes, I had a signal right there!). I totally wiped out! Somehow my ring finger took the impact for my phone and it didn't shatter, and my finger is ok! I have a little road rash on on my knee and it ripped my pants. The sad thing is that I had yak tracks hooked on my backpack! Oh well! The ramp up to the tower was quite icy too, but I held on to the railing for dear life and made it up and down just fine. The view was nice, but I ended up enjoying the views from the trail more.


After the observation tower I headed down the AT towards Siler Bald. The observation tower area was teeming with people but as soon as I turned onto the trail all the people were gone! No one else was venturing down the AT! :-) It stayed that way all day, for the rest of the day the only folks I saw were backpackers! The AT was covered in ice in many places so I was constantly putting my yak traks on and taking them off, but no spot was as treacherous as that spot on the paved trail!

This section of AT is amazing! It's a ridge walk and has spectacular views, sometimes on both sides, the whole way! It was a bright sunny day, warm but not hot, and as I realized later, it was gently going downhill the whole way!


A little while into the hike a guy caught up with me, he was out for a few days helping thru hikers - doing trail magic. He and I got to chatting, turns out he's from Cincinnati too! Lives in Loveland!

Almost to Siler Bald there is a spot called The Narrows - the ridge is almost a knife edge, but it's not really exposed, there's no rocks, it's all dirt, but it's narrow and there are amazing views on all sides! The last 1/2 mile to the bald is straight up, steeper and longer than anything else so far! I made it to the top and saw a rock with a USGS benchmark on it that matched the elevation my map had for the bald so I called it good and didn't go down the to shelter. I'd thought this was an 8 mile round trip hike, but the sign, just before the bald, informed me that it was really closer to 9.5!


It was 2:30 when I turned around and headed back to Clingman's Dome. Out at the bald it was sunny and warm, but the wind was kicking up, as I got closer to Clingman's the clouds were building and the wind was cold! After I passed Double Springs Shelter I started going up, and up, and up, and up. It wasn't very steep, but it was long - 2 miles of up! And, most of the snow had melted during the day and it was now mud! I was getting very tired!


Soon though I came to the by-pass trail that would take me right back yo the parking lot in 0.6 of a mile. That was the longest 1/2 mile ever! And the trail was covered with ice! I managed without putting my yak tracks back on, but I thought the trail was never going to end!

It was 5:00 when I got back to the parking lot so I decided to fire up the generator and have dinner! I so love having everything I own with me all the time! I sat on the floor with the door open and ate dinner with a view and was the envy of everyone else who had at least an hours drive before their dinner! :-)

At 5:30 I started the almost 2 hour drive back to Cades Cove. I had to settle up paying for my site! I was hopeful that my site was still mine! Getting down from Newfound Gap was easy, I put the van in low gear and coasted right on down! Just after I turned onto Little River road however, things got interesting.

Last summer, when I was in PA, the van lost power going up a hill and I ended up at the Mercedes dealer near Philly and they couldn't figure out exactly what was wrong. It hadn't happened again, until today. I was heading up the hill near the visitor center and she just lots power. I put on the hazard lights and managed to get into an overlook where I turned the van off and back on again, that took care of it temporarily last time and seemed to work today.

I wasn't sure what I should do, going back to Cades Cove meant being way out away from cell service and having to drive back in again, but I really wanted to make good on my promise to pay for the site. I decided that if it happened again on the hill into Cades Cove I'd turn around, but if it didn't I was going to stay there tonight and re-group tomorrow.

I'm happy to say that we made it up the long, steep hill into Cades Cove without further trouble! This hill was much longer and the van was working hard the whole time, but the RPMs stayed where they should be, she shifted just fine and never lost power. Last time I had this problem, the next big hill we tried she lost power again, so maybe this is a one time thing? Maybe I can get home without trouble?

When I arrived back at the campground I discovered that they'd given my site away! And the campground was full! So I had to go with my downside plan which was to park in the parking lot of the campground - there's a huge lot here - likely for the horse stables & bike rentals, I figure it's close enough to the campground - 50 feet, maybe from the nearest site (I could hear music & conversation from the site!), I wasn't going in search of a campground at 7:00! I payed my fee from last night - attached a note explaining it and, it's $20 instead of $17, so they get $3 extra. I also tossed in $20 for tonight and explained that since the campground was full I just parked in the lot. I'll be gone tomorrow morning before anyone is here!

Not sure what I'm going to do about the van, right now I'm thinking I'm going to drive back in to Gatlinburg tomorrow, maybe hike to Rainbow Falls , and see how the van behaves. If all is well I may start the drive home tomorrow afternoon - stay in Marion or something tomorrow night, then get home Thurs and see if I can get the van into Mercedes at home. If she is still acting up, I at least want to be where I have cell phone signal!



Monday, March 30, 2015

Spring Break in the Smokies

I knew I had to get away this Spring break and go camping, I've had several reminders lately that life is too short and you have to get out and live and enjoy as much as you can! This was my goal, do something that would make me insanely happy and let me really enjoy my break! I had trouble figuring out where I could go. The weather was looking ok, a little chilly, but not cold, but most campgrounds were closed until late in the week. I remembered that Cades Cove campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was open year round and I checked the forecast for the park, it was going to be 70 and sunny all week! It was going to be a long drive and I was going to have to take the whole week to go, rather than a quick 2 nighter, but it sounded like a good plan. And, it seemed just crazy enough to fit with my "life is too short" theme!

I spent Sunday getting the RV ready and gathering my gear and then got up early this morning and headed out. I left at 7:15 and arrived in Seiverville at 3:30! Excllent! No issues at all on 81! Almost as soon as I hit the Tennessee border the clouds were breaking up and the sun was coming out, soon it was clear and 75*! I knew the long drive was worth it!

The one problem with The Smokies is Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville - over about 20 miles you can trace the evolution of tacky tourist traps. And where there are tourist traps, there are tourists. And traffic. Lots of traffic. About 4 years ago we came here at Christmas and stayed in a cabin in Wears Valley and learned some ways around the worst of it, so I was able to avoid the worst of the traffic.

I knew there was a cut through that would bring me from Wears Valley Rd right to Metcalf Bottoms picnic area, I remembered it was a bit twisty and turny but it put me closer to my first choice of campground, Elkmont. When I turned on the road there was a sign : "vehicles over 22ft prohibited at park boundary." Hmmmm...I'm 24's only 2ft, should be ok. I kept driving. It was very twisty & turny & narrow & tight and there was no guardrail, but I made it! I was almost to the picnic area when a Ranger passed me going the other way! He looked like he was in hot pursuit of something else and didn't stop me. Then I came to the bridge. The narrow, wooden bridge. The bridge had a sign: no motorhomes. Well, that's ok, I'm not driving a motorhome, I'm driving a van. Over I went. I kept glancing in the mirror for that Ranger, but he never showed up!

I headed down Little River Road toward Elkmont campground. Little River Road is a beautiful drive. It's also nerve wracking. The road is a narrow 2 lanes, no shoulder, rushing creek/River on one side, sheer rock cliffs on the other. And lots of turns. And twists. It was kinda fun!

When I got to Elkmont I discovered that they were full. My only other option was to go out to Cades Cove. 19 more miles of Little River Road, back the way I'd already come. And, what if they were full too? Then what? I was 25 miles from Gatlinburg, and it was getting late. My plan was to "stealth" camp in a trailhead parking lot if I had to. If I was questioned I would explain the situation to the Ranger and offer to pay a campground fee.

I was getting quite cranky and frustrated when I encountered a "bear jam" just a few miles from the campground. There were prob 30 cars, everyone out in the road, no one letting anyone by. Finally a ranger came up and was sorting things out. I never saw the bear, but I good picture of the traffic! LOL!

Finally I made it to Cades Cove! There weren't many sites left but I scored c39, which I liked because that's how old I am! And it's even mostly level. After a quick dinner I decided to ride my bike around the campground. That turned into me riding my bike around the Cades Cove loop road!

The loop road is an 11 mile scenic drive. It's one way and bikes are allowed. It was already almost 7 but the sun looked high in the sky and I decided I probably had enough time. It was a lovely ride! The loop road goes through the valley and past old settlements from before the park was established. There are mountains all around and the setting sun made it even nicer! There weren't a ton of cars, and I was the only biker. I did the whole loop and was back well before dark! There were a lot of hills, most of which kicked my out of shape, haven't ridden my bike since August butt! I am proud to say that I didn't get off and walk! The one thing that annoyed me is that the road is very narrow and the cars wouldn't pass me unless I pulled over and stopped. This was especially annoying on the hills when I was huffing it up with a car breathing down my back. In many cases though the passenger in the car had encouraging words for me when they passed me so that was nice! :-)

When I got back to the campground I met my neighbors, they are from Cincinnati and she teaches 4th grade! Very nice people! We chatted for awhile until it was good and dark then retreated to our campers!